Six black boxers stand blindfolded, enrounded by a baying white crowd. A smashed bottle signifies the start of the fight. They are left to slug it out, swinging wildly, eyes bound, until one man alone is left standing. The winner is awarded the dubious honour of scrambling for pennies scattered by the mob. But there’s more than coins left in the dust.
This is just one of many rich stories that run through The Royale, a play openly based on and dynamically adapted from the story of Jack Johnson, first African American heavyweight champion of the world. Such royale rumbles as above were at first the only opportunities afforded to black boxers in the 19th century. But we begin in 1905 with the Johnsonian figure, Jay Jackson, hungry for recognition beyond the paltry compensation of ‘coloured titles’. He goads America’s reigning champ (white, of course) out of retirement – and the hell let loose in the ring soon rises up, over the ropes and spills out into the streets. Showboating, racism, persecution and retribution conspire together in this swirling epicentre, and the ring becomes a microcosm for a whole country – and a whole era. Johnson’s is a powerful tale in itself, but here it is masterfully reimagined and magnificently executed by all involved.
The transportative design sees the audience turned in towards each other, over the scuffed boards of a simple wooden stage. You can practically smell the blood and sawdust. A couple of sturdy stools, a clever trapdoor, evocative lighting and an absorbing cast do all the rest. Ewan Stewart feels uncannily vintage as Jackson’s moustachioed matchmaker, his promoter’s trill booming and rolling over the stalls. Gershwyn Eustache Jr sensitively blossoms as a challenger-turned-sparring partner. Clint Dyer as Jackson’s corner man is softly scarred, enigmatic and engaging, without ever sentimentalising as these trainer-roles tend to. Meanwhile Frances Ashman as Jay’s sister is incandescent – and chilling, particularly when she takes her prophetic lines beyond the fourth wall, moving along the audience like an oracle touched by madness. But this is Nicholas Pinnock’s show, as Jay ‘The Sport’ Jackson himself. His fine, open features, his Atlas-like form and the grace with which he embraces both the dazzling choreography and the character’s journey is triumphant. Whatever the outcome of the fight may be.
Director Madani Younis sets us up with a rhythm punchy enough to challenge any pentameter – scenes are punctuated to the mesmerising beat of claps, stamps, and grunts. Writer Marco Ramirez – a drummer himself, and it shows – charts the story immaculately, picking his fights eloquently and packing them all into six tight, bright and memorable rounds. Jackson sauntering circles around his opponent, landing words as deftly as jabs; dandifying himself while humouring an ignorant press; delicately handling both his sister and the responsibility of representing an entire social movement. The dialogue runs along sonorously, twining and reprising and offering no small amount of laughs along the way. A gramophone comes to life with Dyer’s stirring voice and harmonica, the percussion played out by a punch-bag. And there is a rewarding move to create a sixth character – Jackson’s opponent, the ‘Great White Hope’ – from this bracing cast of five.
“You’re a coloured man on page 5. Jesus Christ Jay, it’s remarkable.” The struggle between nurturing public consciousness and causing civil unrest is one many a fated figure has dealt with in history. Twenty people, white and black, died all in all as a result of the fight behind this play. Amidst the endless debate over the best response to recent events such as the Paris shootings, The Royale feels much more than a period piece. A knockout, a prize-fight, utterly sucker-punching: the boxing puns won’t do this one justice. A staggering production that leaves you reeling.