Marco Ramirez’s play in six rounds uses boxing as a multifaceted metaphor. The purity and intensity of hand to hand – or hand to face – fighting can and does represent so many things: from the individual’s private grudge to the injustices wreaked on an entire race. It’s based on the story of the first black world heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, renamed Jay Jackson, and the build up to a fight between him and ‘The Champ’ Bixby amid the tensions of Jim Crow America.
The actors don’t actually fight. All the other details are there – gloves and boots, punching bag and match day flyers all over the floor – but unison slaps and thumps on the floor or on chests recreate the sounds and the rhythm of boxing without any bloodied noses. Ramirez captures the rhythm in his script too – each line is itself a jab, every exchange built from rapid-fire pithy verbal punches. Jay (Nicholas Pinnock) is an ostentatious fighter. He entertains the crowd as he effortlessly licks his various opponents. The same can be said of the play, which entertains through its rhythmic writing and still delivers the necessary punches.
As well as being a boxing match, much of the play is a shouting match too. The only character whose voice isn’t raised for the duration is Clint Dyer’s Wynton, who brings wry humour and a grounded attitude to the otherwise histrionic showbiz world of acceptable violence. He’s particularly remarkable in a tense scene with Fish (Gershwyn Eustache Jr): in a moment he erupts with a seismic explosion of energy. In that second he’s no longer friendly, nor funny. He’s frightening.
Ramirez writes more than just one fight into the play. There’s the fight between Jay and The Champ but also between the individual and the movement. Jay doesn’t realise what his fight will symbolise or, if he does, what effects that symbol could have. It’s not even a grudge match for Jay. He has no personal enmity towards The Champ. He’s fighting instead against the personal furies that white people and the de jure subjugation of an entire race have set ablaze within him – Jay contra mundum, and for very personal reasons that become clear as the play rises to its climax. For everyone watching, it’s a fight between black and white.
Jay doesn’t think through what victory would mean for everyone else. He’s determined, but he’s naive. He can only see positive consequences – or maybe he chooses to disregard the negatives. Ramirez builds and builds this narrative to the moment when Jay fights The Champ, so that the simplicity of the act itself – the decision to fight, and possibly defeat, this foe is laden with an entire world of complexities.
There are the obligatory boxing cliches as well – a silent scene in which Jay takes out all his frustration on a punching bag for example – but they’re easy to forgive when everything else is so well presented. There’s brilliant lighting by James Whiteside which turns from orange, as if lit for a fight, to white like a publicity shot or a freeze frame. But what exposes the themes of The Royale so well is the contrast between the internal crowd – the imagined rabble watching the boxing matches with frenzied clamour – and us, sitting quietly in our seats watching the play.
Madani Younis’ production may wear its metaphor on its sleeve, but the depths of that metaphor are mightily impressive.