Johnson wasn’t just a boxer, he was one of the greatest boxers ever. But virulent racism meant that black fighters weren’t allowed to compete against whites for the world heavyweight title. Johnson, however, taunted the retired white champion, Jim Jeffries, into the “fight of the century.” When Johnson beat him, white anger erupted into riots in 50 cities across the country, leaving a reported 20 dead.
Johnson’s story has been told in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Great White Hope, which made stars out of James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander. Ramirez has fictionalized the tale — Jack Johnson is now Jay Jackson – and The Royale is “suggested by” Johnson’s life rather than a retelling.
Ramirez uses the events to make a passionate case for trailblazing, but is equally fervent forcing us to consider the cost. Racism isn’t just about keeping people down, but also the lethal reaction toward the whole community when one person stands up.
Desean Kevin Terry attacks the role of Jay with an intensity as controlled as it is ferocious; intelligence, fury, pain and a surprisingly detached bemusement surface and dive continually throughout. Tim Edward Rhoze and Andrew William Smith sharpen the play’s edges with danger and complexity as two of Jackson’s cohorts. Bernard Gilbert and Bria Walker provide a powerful reminder of the risk and pain at stake.
On Brian Sidney Bembridge’s breathtaking set, director Stuart Carden creates a very theatrical event (following Ramirez’ lead), and the evening, at a brisk 75 minutes, is precise and hugely absorbing.
In hoping to draw out contemporary parallels, Ramirez has perhaps lost sight of the period — not one of his characters feels as if he or she were born in the late 1800s. And, too, he attempts far too much in the final 10 minutes, resulting in an ending which feels unfocused and forced. But those are minor concerns, and thanks to Ramirez, Carden and this cast, The Royale is an enthralling evening of theater.