|The Royale (Chris Bennion)|
Through October 9, 2016
Sometimes, you can experience a stage production where everything is just about as perfect as it can be made. The Royale at ACT Theatre is one such production. This will be remembered for a long, long time if you get a chance to see it. I recommend it unreservedly for all people over about age 10!
This is a startlingly fast production at about 70 minutes that encompasses the challenge of Jay “Sport” Jackson (Jarrod M. Smith) to become the first African American heavy weight boxing champion of the world. The story is based on the real life Jack Johnson, who spurred many movies and documentaries of his accomplishments in the early 1900s.
We meet his trainer (G. Valmont Thomas), his promoter (R. Hamilton Wright), his sparring partner (Lorenzo Roberts) and his sister Nina (Zenobia Taylor). We are privy to the conversations and maneuvering to get him a fight with the white heavy weight champ that he longs to beat in order to break the color barrier. We hear about the formidable barriers, including the concerns of his sister, who is terribly afraid of what might happen to her and her children if he wins! This kind of concern is not the “usual fare” of under-dog plays.
The play breaks open the topics of sacrifice that those who strive to break barriers must consider and make. When Jay gets an unexpected visit from Nina, she forces him to consider whether the danger of unhinged individuals “out there” who might take their fear and rage out on the African American community is one he needs to take responsibility for. In addition to everything else, must he shoulder that weight? And yes, essentially, he must, the script says.
We have here a first-rate script by Marco Ramirez. It is smart and spare. It is efficient, yet poetic. It is clear, yet includes ambiguities that make one think. Then, director Ameenah Kaplan creates the excitement on stage through having the actors make much of the soundscape of the play with their bodies.
They stomp a rhythm, beat their hands together or on their shoulders, chests, thighs. They sometimes shout in unison. The fighting action is created through a stomp on a hard wooden platform of a ring and an actor making a graceful sudden turn of the head (as if struck) or a swoop out of the way of the invisible punch. This is choreography of a high order.
The set by Carey Wong is clean, mostly the square platform with a ring that falls from above when needed. The soundscape of crowds and fight action is perfectly done by Sharath Patel. The lighting by Ben Zamora is exquisite, with spotlights, camera flashes, pinpointing where we should look. The costuming by Rose Pederson is perfect for the turn of last century.
The cast is perfection. Every moment and every emotion is thought through. Watch for unspoken messages flashed between Jay and his trainer. There is a devastating moment near the end when Jay has an answer for Nina on why he boxes and what he means to accomplish. His answer can break your heart.