Curtain Critic: “The Royale” unveils racism in and out of the boxing ring

Bechir Sylvain, Edwin Lee Gibson, and Peter Howard in ATC’s The Royale. (Courtesy of Tim Fuller)

It’s the biggest fight of his career, and all Jay Jackson can think of is the knife that will pierce black skin if he wins.

It’s 1910. Jay Jackson, played by Bechir Sylvain, is a boxer inspired by the first African-American world heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson. Now, Jay’s in the ring with the world’s white heavyweight champion, fighting to cement himself as the world’s best — regardless of skin color.

But it’s not that simple, as Marco Ramirez’s absorbing script makes clear. Although much of Arizona Theatre Company’s production of “The Royale” takes place in the ring, the true meat of its story lays bare the dangers of being a black celebrity in the shadow of Jim Crow. Growing hatred dogs Jay’s rising career, and Sylvain’s emotional performance reflects the emotional toll such a burden can take.

Director Michael John Garcés keeps the story moving at a steady pace; even though there are periods of silence, the story flies by, assisted by Stage Manager Dom Ruggiero’s fluid transitions and the small cast’s passionate performances.

Unique staging gives “The Royale” an innovative flair: In a play that’s all about fighting, not a single punch is landed to an actor’s face. The boxers instead stand facing the audience, hitting the air, reacting to attacks while voicing their internal thoughts. It’s another creative aspect that makes this play stand out from most stories about underdogs who blossom into rising stars. “The Royale” is more complex, from the story’s knotty emotional core to creative staging.

Black bars, rugged lockers and a red punching bag illustrate the stage. Scenic designer Misha Kachman’s Spartan set reflects the starkness of early 20th-century gyms. The dark, bleak backgrounds ensure that the eyes stay glued to the characters’ faces, especially during lengthy periods of silence that pass without a word.

One emotional scene occurs when Jay confronts his trainer, Wynton (Edwin Lee Gibson), for not telling him about armed men who were stopped at the door. Minutes pass as Wynton wordlessly stares into the audience while Jay changes in the background. It leaves the mind to wander, imagining what’s going through Wynton’s mind, but without lines, Gibson doesn’t have much to express. I found myself wishing Ramirez’s script gave Wynton more lines to flesh out his character and add more of his perspective.

Fish, Jay’s sparring partner, is another character who could use more lines. Roberto Antonio Martin makes Fish a bright, cheery presence whose energy and optimism provides emotional relief from some of the play’s weighty scenes, but the script doesn’t give him much emotional meat to chew on.

Where the story flourishes, however, is when Jay’s sister, Nina, steps in. For much of the play, she’s a specter on the sidelines, silently observing Jay throughout his circuit. When she steps onto the stage and speaks for the first time, the stage buzzes with electrical tension between the siblings. Sure-footed and strong-voiced, Erica Chamblee’s performance infuses Nina with not only a dignified presence, but also a tumultuous effect on her brother’s psyche.

Both Nina and Jay dominate the stage during the play’s incredible climax, circling each other like wolves about to pounce, arguing about the ramifications of Jay’s win.

It’s the biggest fight of his career, and all Jay Jackson can think of is his sister’s voice whispering warnings as he dodges punches and lands hits on the man standing between him and the title of world heavyweight champion. A vengeful racist could pull out a gun or a scandalized fan hearing of Jay’s victory could pull out a knife. If Jay were to win, Nina argues, blood will be shed, even though it may not be his.

The Arizona Theatre Company’s “The Royale” isn’t quite a knockout, but its solid pacing, acting and production provide a series of hard, emotional hits that can leave you breathless.

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