Boxing metaphors come too easily in thinking about The Royale, Aurora Theatre’s searing drama about the struggles of an African American fighter in the early 20th century. It’s based loosely on the career of Jack Johnson, who won the world heavyweight championship in 1908 and fought a bout that was labeled “the Fight of the Century” on July 4, 1910.
Does the play, written by Marco Ramirez, pack a punch? It sure does, on both the personal and sociological levels.
Is it a theatrical knockout? Absolutely. I’ve rarely seen an audience leap to its collective feet as quickly and enthusiastically as the throng that attended last Thursday’s opening.
Ramirez, best known for his work with the Netflix hit Orange is the New Black, named the play’s central character Jay Jackson, but there’s no question about the source of his inspiration. Jackson’s determination, ego and brashness mirror those of the historic champ, and so does his impact on the American public: adulation tempered by fear in the black community; scorn and the urge toward violence among whites. At least 20 people — mostly black — died and hundreds were injured in riots from coast to coast in the wake of Johnson’s 1910 victory over former champ Jim Jeffries.
That’s the background. In The Royale, the punches of boxers as well as violence outside the ring and conflicts within minds and memories all strike with potency, but without contact between fists and bodies. Instead, blows reverberate through the small theater via the claps, stomps and grunts of five performers, at times in a superbly choreographed dance of demolition.
The play opens with a crackling bout between Jackson (Calvin M. Thompson), the Negro heavyweight champion, and a relative amateur called Fish (Satchel André), and sets the stage for almost everything that follows. Between jabs and hooks and stomps that indicate blows which connect, they reveal the thoughts of both: Jackson brimming with confidence and Fish nervous but tenacious.
On a platform above the bare expanse that simulates the ring, an announcer bellows extravagant introductions and descriptions. That task is expertly dispatched by Tim Kniffin, who fills a multitude of roles, among them Jackson’s agent, a fight promoter, a referee and a host of white reporters who badger the unflappable fighter in press conferences and interviews. The interplay clearly carries echoes of Muhammad Ali’s dealings with the media.
Jackson obviously wins the match, but the victory is hardly cause for celebration. Fish was just another relatively easy mark in his long career. What he wants is a shot at the recognized world champion. Kniffin, now playing his agent, declares that hope futile but reluctantly pursues a deal. In an era when Jim Crow laws ruled much of the country, blacks and whites simply did not compete against each other. But even then, money often spoke louder than ideals, and an exorbitant deal was struck. The champ would fight Jackson — for 90 percent of the purse.
The run-up to the resulting bout turns the spotlight on the world outside the ring.
It prompts Jackson’s trainer, Wynton (Donald E. Lacy Jr.), to recount his experience some years earlier in another ring, when a group of blindfolded black men fought each other until only one was left standing. The winner’s prize: coins thrown into the ring by the white men who had arranged and cheered the bloody spectacle. The event, he tells, was called “the royale.”
Another crucial figure who appears as the big fight approaches is Jackson’s sister, Nina (Atim Udoffia). The message she brings is not one of hope for his success but fear that his success will come at a terrible price for his family, in some small town in the South, and for black Americans everywhere. It might also carry risks to the fighter’s own life, since men with guns were seen near the arena. The warnings strike Jackson forcefully, but nothing will deter him from pursuing the title and winning it in an epic battle that fills the theater with roars, cheers and overtones of terror.
It’s a triumph for Aurora, for director Darryl V. Jones, for fight choreographer Joe Orrach, and for every one of the performers. That’s especially true for Thompson, who appeared totally drained at the curtain call. The play’s 90 minutes resurrect images of an America that has changed in many ways on its surface, but remains fraught with racial strife to this day. It also reminds us of the power of live theater to address profound issues.
(An incidental note: Films of Jack Johnson’s major fights, in some cases with narratives about racial issues, can be seen on YouTube.)
The Royale runs through Dec. 3 at Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $33-$65, from 510-843-4822 or auroratheatre.org