BULLET REVIEW — THE ROYALE (Lincoln Center/Mitzie Newhouse)

I really wanted to love The Royale by Marco Ramirez now in previews at Lincoln Center’s Mitzie Newhouse. The play tells a story of boxing and race in the early 1900s. The plot is drawn from the “Fight of the Century” in 1910 when the white heavyweight champ James Jeffries was defeated by Jack Johnson and the country erupted into bloody race riots. The Playbill is oddly silent about this history.

I was rooting for the wonderful actors who poured out their blood, sweat and tears onto the beautifully recreated, era evoking, wooden boxing ring but the flawed arc of the story left me hungry.

Khris Davis gives an outstanding, multilayered performance as Jay Johnson the black champ waging his own soul tormenting fight for respect and recognition in turn of the century America.
Davis has a fighter’s body, stature and an emotional intensity that evokes a memory of a young Mohammed Ali. Clarke Peters, admired by fans of the Wire, plays his manager, father figure with even tempered gravitas and a boxing back story of his own.

The play starts with a uniquely choreographed fight between Jay and Fish, a talented young wannabe. The fighters who are positioned apart from each other reel from punches marked by the sharp crack of the ring corner posts set being raised and dropped. McKinley Belcher III plays the wannabe with an engaging vulnerability of kid who escapes from his day job in a shipyard to become Johnson’s sparring partner.

Here’s my complaint. The story of the champ’s ultimately unbeatable foe — Jim Crow- does not take off until almost ¾ of the way through the play when we meet his sister Nina played forcefully by Montego Glover. Her commanding presence is the first glimpse of the dangerous reality of a black contender taking on the white crown holder and the direct threat to himself and the safety of his family back home.

There was no intermission but there was a distinct first and second act that needed a deeper organic connection.

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