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The Royale
by Marco Ramirez
Directed by Stuart Carden
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Studio
March 10. 2017

Bernard Gilbert, Lance Baker, Akron Lanier Watson
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Royale is an ambitious concept. It’s a story inspired by history, told in manner that resonates well for today’s audiences. The latest production at the Rep Studio, this is a dynamic, fascinating play that features fine production values and a fantastic cast. Telling a tale that’s in a way as timely today as it would have been 110 years ago, it’s a challenging and vibrantly staged piece of theatre.

The story of The Royale takes place at “some point between 1905 and 1910”, according to the program. It’s a tale inspired by the real-life story of boxer Jack Johnson, who became the first black World Heavyweight Champion. It’s a story that’s been told before on stage and on screen in the form of Howard Sackler’s The Great White Hope. Here, though, the format is different and much more stylized. The lead character here is called Jay “The Sport” Jefferson (Akron Lanier Watson), and the story follows him as he engages in a series of matches with other black fighters across the country, although his real aim is for a chance at the world Heavyweight title, held by the retired (and unseen) white boxer Bernard Bixby. As Jay wrangles with his promoter Max (Lance Baker) and befriends a talented opponent, Fish (Bernard Gilbert)–who becomes Jay’s sparring partner–the potential of a match with Bixby looms, along with all the implications of such a fight, especially if Jay wins. The impact of the match on the highly segregated society of the time is shown especially in the form of Jay’s relationship with his sister Nina (Bria Walker), who is proud of her brother but has serious reservations about the title fight. The story is told in a unique format, with the boxing matches often staged side-by-side instead of head-to-head, and with carefully staged movement and use of rhythmic body percussion choreographed by Stephanie Paul.  It’s an inventive construction that helps to keep the story moving with a great deal of dynamic energy.

This play depends a lot on its cast, and that’s its biggest strength. Watson brings a real sense of charisma and presence that is essential for the dynamic, iconoclastic Jay. His boasting and bravado, as well as his athletic prowess, are on clear display, and when the situation gets more challenging, his sense of conflict is clear. His scenes with Walker’s determined Nina are a highlight of the show, as are his scenes with the excellent Gilbert as the determined, ambitious Fish. There are also strong performances from Baker as Max and by Samuel Ray Gates as Jay’s trainer and friend, Wynton.  Maalik Shakoor and Jarris Williams round out the excellent ensemble of this well-choreographed, briskly staged play.

The more contemporary structure of the play actually works well in portraying the spirit and tone of the early 20th Century setting of the play. There’s also an excellent set by Brian Sidney Bembridge that basically puts the audience in the ring with the fighters, as well as strong atmospheric lighting also by Bembridge. Christine Pascual’s costumes are richly detailed and appropriate for the time and characters, from the boxing attire to Jay’s and Max’s stylish suits and Nina’s dress and hat. The only real misstep in terms of period accuracy is an odd anachronism I’m surprised hasn’t been caught already, in terms of radio. The characters keep talking about listening to events on the radio, when commercial broadcast radio didn’t exist until the 1920’s. Otherwise, the time, place and spirit of the production are well maintained, and the sense of drama is well-built in the structure, and especially in the thrilling climactic bout.

The Royale is a memorable production, and a fascinatingly inventive theatrical event. Theatre is a good venue for a sport like boxing, that can be theatrical in itself. Boxing also works as a fitting allegory for the struggle that Jay, his sister, and their contemporaries endured every day in a highly segregated and often brutal society. It’s a show with a message that still resonates now, because although times have changed,  events in the news show us that there’s still a lot of change needed. This is a strong production from the Rep Studio, closing out a first-rate season.

Akron Lanier Watson, Bria Walker
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting The Royale in its Studio Theatre until March 26, 2017.

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