Theater Review | The Royale packs a punch at American Stage

If you were to personify the word swagger, your closest approximation might be ŒæJay äóìThe Sportäó Jackson. The Royaleäó»s protagonist — loosely based on the worldäó»s first black heavyweight champion, John Arthur “Jack” Johnson — is the centerpiece of American Stageäó»s uniquely stylized, beautifully syncopated production.

The Royale, with poignant Jim Crow oppression too close for comfort,Œæties in American Stageäó»s new seasonäó»s theme, äóìWe the People,äó conceived by Producing Artistic Director Stephanie Gularte — plays that remind us of the power of bridges, not walls.

Marco Ramirez (Sons of Anarchy, Fear the Walking Dead, Netflix original Orange is the New Black among others) scripted the dynamic period piece, which tells the story of a world-class African-American fighter breaking barriers to win his sportäó»s biggest championship. The loosely based true story takes place during the turn of the century, when segregation was an ever-present reality.

Jay (Aygemang Clay) on the left, doing the virtual fighting with Fish (Rich Lowe) receiving a punch. Max (Richard B. Watson) is the referee. Photography by Kara Goldberg.

The play steals your breath with sounds and rhythms, and American Stage seats theŒæaudience ringside for a dramatic bout 70-minutes-deep with no intermission to disrupt its flow. Stage directionsŒæ spotlight boxers separately, and a Greek chorus of sorts clap and stomp like a pounding heartbeat or a one-two punch; the beats punctuated by the almost-blinding flashes of old camera bulbs. All the while, rhythms cleverly intermingle with Ramirezäó»s alliteration and punctuation.

Lisa Tricomiäó»s direction makes the most of Ramirezäó»s visceral poetry and interior perspective. Sheäó»s on point with his jazzy vibe, which gets proper due from a stellar cast — the room-grabbing Aygemang Clay as Jay the champ; the sympathetic Rich Lowe is Fish, an amateur boxer; Rokia L. Shearin conveys the anxieties of worried mothers as Nina; Jayäó»s righteous sister.

Jay (Aygemang Clay) embracing Fish (Rich Lowe). Jay’s sister Nina (Rokia L. Shearin) in the foreground. Photography by Kara Goldberg.

Kim Sullivan — who recently reached a milestone with American Stage having appeared in all of the plays in the theateräó»s August Wilson Century Cycle; read a Creative Pinellas interview here — returns to portray Wynton, the older, Svengali-like coach; and Richard B. Watson plays Max, a fight promoter, referee, an announcer and (amazingly) all the members of the press corps. Œæ

Jerid Foxäó»s modern and precise scenic designs, coupled with the fast and interesting use of lightning effects by Joseph P. Oshry also play a major part. They and the rest of the creative team deserve props — especially boxing consultants Leigh Simons and James Battle for their guidance in portraying an authentic depiction of the pugilist sport, and Tricomi and the sparring actors for eliciting what goes on in the fighteräó»s mind.

The playäó»s pulsating emotion should leave many thinking about it and discussing it for days. Kudos to Carolina Esparza, the sound and percussion coach, for an enthralling experience: feeling the music through the plot — what a concept! — plus Ramirezäó»s jazzy overtones. The end result Œæis spellbinding. Says Esparza, a local flamenco favorite: “Jay Jackson is a lover of music, and it’s important to bring different feelings in the rhythms. Not just sound, but feelings.”

Wynton, the coach (Kim Sullivan) sits patiently while Max (Richard B. Watson) is trying to explain things to Jay. (Aygemang Clay) Photography by Kara Goldberg.

Itäó»s also noteworthy that American Stage is in partnership with seven visual artists for the äóìWe The Peopleäó season. Each will contribute to one play. For The Royale, they counted on Herbert Scott Davisäó»s eye. His one-of-a-kind painting of a boxer titled äóìThe Flight of the Albatrossäó hangs in the hall and its proceeds will be donated to 40 FORWARD, an American Stage fund campaign, named in honor of the theateräó»s four-decade anniversary. The partnership celebrates diversity while binding our community together even more. Œæ

American Stageäó»s choice to skip the intermission makes it easy to get lost in the flood of the The Royaleäó»s narrative.

The playäó»s announcer says it all: “Ladies and gentlemen, the fight you paid your hard-earned green for is about to begin!”ŒæŒæ

Play runs through Oct. 15. Visit for ticket prices and directions. Friday night, Oct. 6, is American Stage’s Ladies Night. Women are invited to attend a happy hour one hour before curtain at 7 p.m.; Oct. 13 is Pride Plus Night; On Tuesday, Oct. 10, all are invited to a A Spotlight Series: Community Conversations ($10, free for subscribers).Œæ

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