Marco Ramirez set out to write a play about a boxer who "will take what is rightfully his." The Royale is heavily inspired by the story of Jack Johnson, though Ramirez felt he "took so many liberties" with Johnson’s story that he chose to name his lead character Jay "the Sport" Jackson. In parts, this is a play about making history; throughout, it is a play about boxing.
A boxing match can’t be successfully imitated in a theatre. Even two actors expert in stage fighting will produce an obvious fake that must jar with an audience. Ramirez judiciously chooses not to imitate but to reinvent. The actors share a ring but do not directly engage. They throw punches, recoil from blows but do so in their own space. All this takes place in a flexible "bullet time" that allows actions to be clearly seen and thoughts to be heard. It works. A punch thrown into the air with intent has more gravitas than a pretend punch thrown at an opponent. Ramirez wants his audience to see the majesty of a straight right. The fights have intensity, subtle shifts in momentum. The fighters’ streams of consciousness illustrate the old cliche about how a competitor's primary opponent is always themselves. Nervous journeyman Fish urges himself on:
"Make your mark. All these people. The might forget me."
The play contains a memorable promoter-fighter relationship. Promoter Max is constantly reminding Jay of his service, telling him that he has "sacrificed" his "whole career" for Jay. He tries to prove his indispensability by describing himself as the only "inter-racial fight promoter". Jay, however, knows his worth and will not be made to feel grateful for the success that is his due. As a man who has spent his life confronting discrimination, he will not sympathise with Max’s excuses about its hardships:
"I like you fine, Max. But if you ain’t the promoter that gets me a shot at that title, someone else will be."
It may be 1905 but Jay is a thoroughly modern boxer who works hard on his profile. He boasts proudly of his world title fight being broadcast in 39 states. His sister criticises him for "sayin’ your own name like its merchandise"; that is, of course, exactly how Jay wants it. His popularity is about more than just making the money to keep him in the expensive fashion that he’s grown accustomed to; it gives him the credibility to demand the first ever united world title fight.
The play is "outsider takes on the world" at its core but that familiar Hollywood trope becomes murkier once Jay’s sister Nina enters the stage. She has not come to encourage her brother but to warn him. She believes that by defeating "the Great White Hope", he will unleash social unrest that will put African Americans in danger:
"I know you’re ready to win. You were ready to take over the world the day you were born. I just don’t think the rest of us are."
We’re all familiar with athletes who choose or are thrust into positions where they can change societies. What is shocking and yet believable here is a sportsman finding himself inadvertently responsible for the lives of others. Champions win through single-minded focus on the prize; the audience is asked to consider whether in Jay’s case such an outlook is selfishly reckless. You naturally root for the brave wise-cracking challenger. And yet it’s impossible not to see how Jay’s belief in his ability to "make it right" is fast undermined by events outside the ring.
The Royale runs at The Tabernacle, London until November 26th