If you were to personify the word swagger, your closest approximation might be Jay “The Sport” Jackson. The Royale’s protagonist — loosely based on the world’s first black heavyweight champion, John Arthur “Jack” Johnson — is the centerpiece of American Stage’s uniquely stylized, beautifully syncopated production.
The Royale, with poignant Jim Crow oppression too close for comfort, ties in American Stage’s new season’s theme, “We the People,” 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 sport’s biggest championship. The loosely based true story takes place during the turn of the century, when segregation was an ever-present reality.
The play steals your breath with sounds and rhythms, and American Stage seats the audience ringside for a dramatic bout 70-minutes-deep with no intermission to disrupt its flow. Stage directions 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 Ramirez’s alliteration and punctuation.
Lisa Tricomi’s direction makes the most of Ramirez’s visceral poetry and interior perspective. She’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; Jay’s righteous sister.
Kim Sullivan — who recently reached a milestone with American Stage having appeared in all of the plays in the theater’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.
Jerid Fox’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 fighter’s mind.
The play’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 Ramirez’s jazzy overtones. The end result is 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.”
It’s also noteworthy that American Stage is in partnership with seven visual artists for the “We The People” season. Each will contribute to one play. For The Royale, they counted on Herbert Scott Davis’s eye. His one-of-a-kind painting of a boxer titled “The Flight of the Albatross” hangs in the hall and its proceeds will be donated to 40 FORWARD, an American Stage fund campaign, named in honor of the theater’s four-decade anniversary. The partnership celebrates diversity while binding our community together even more.
American Stage’s choice to skip the intermission makes it easy to get lost in the flood of the The Royale’s narrative.
The play’s announcer says it all: “Ladies and gentlemen, the fight you paid your hard-earned green for is about to begin!”
Play runs through Oct. 15. Visit americanstage.org 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).