Playwright and screenwriter Marco Ramirez remembers the day he fell in love with live theater and where it happened: at a GableStage production of Of Mice and Men.
Ramirez was one of 150 or so schoolkids bused to GableStage to see the show during its run in 1999 (it was the second production Joseph Adler directed after being named artistic director). Somehow, seeing migrant workers George and Lennie up close made the story personal and compelling, an experience Ramirez couldn’t forget.
“Before that, I may have gone with my parents to Disney World to see the shows they do there. I had seen goofy musicals, but I had never seen a straightforward play,” the Miami native recalls from his office in Los Angeles.
“Nobody broke into song. The actors were only about 15 feet away. One of them had a stump or prosthetic device on his hand. The whole thing left an impact on me.”
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The Coral Reef High School graduate went on to make his own mark on the theater world. His short plays premiered at City Theatre’s Summer Shorts festival. He attended New York University and earned a Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival Latino Playwriting Award award in 2005 for his play Things Behind the Moon. I am not Batman and 3:59 a.m.: a drag race for two actors were chosen for the prestigious Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville, both winning the theater’s Heideman Award. He went on to the high-profile playwriting program at The Juilliard School in New York. Eventually, he began writing for television and earned an impressive résumé of writing and producing credits (Sons of Anarchy, Orange is the New Black, Fear the Walking Dead, Marvel’s Daredevil and the upcoming Netflix series The Defenders among them).
Now, Ramirez is returning to the place where his dream began. His latest play, The Royale, opens Saturday for a monthlong run at GableStage at the Biltmore in Coral Gables, and with his parents, grandparents and sister in tow, he’ll be in the audience. Winner of the John Gassner Award for Best Play from the Outer Critics Circle and nominated for two Drama League awards and Outstanding Play from the Drama Desk Awards, the play is set in the early 1900s and inspired by the life of boxer Jack Johnson, who became the first black heavyweight champion.
Making sure the struggles and the threats he faced were right, that was what important to me, not creating a Wikipedia version of his life.
Playwright Marco Ramirez on ‘The Royale,’ which is inspired by the life of boxer Jack Johnson
Johnson’s life has been used as inspiration before — notably in the 1967 play The Great White Hope by Howard Sackler, which won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award in 1969 and was adapted by Sackler for a film starring James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander in 1970. The Royale, though, is not a chronological story of Johnson’s life. Ramirez has changed the character’s name to Jay Jackson, opting for a unique work that’s more visceral than a straight biography.
“It’s incredibly inventive,” says Adler, who directs The Royale, which runs through June 26. “It’s theatrical in the best sense. Some of the conceits are just magical. The style is original. It’s challenging for the actors and for all of us. It’s not what you expect from someone who writes for television.”
Ramirez says he knew the story needed to be a play, not a television or movie script. One of the best things about working in different mediums, he says, is that he knows early on what works in which one.
“I enjoy being able to toggle between them,” he says. “I have friends who do circuit training and weight lifting. They switch up their routines to make muscle groups stronger. This way I can make sure I can lean into whichever medium works best. It’s a real luxury to be able to bounce between these three worlds.”
The sweet science had intrigued Ramirez long before he settled on Johnson’s story as a jumping-off point.
“There’s just something about the fiction surrounding boxing that’s interesting to me,” he says. “Aside from the films, which are wonderful — everything from Rocky to The Fighter — there’s a whole genre of fiction from writers like Jack London, writers who tackled it beautifully. It’s a sport that’s so brutal, but like jazz, it’s improvised. It distills the human struggle. Sports are in general a good metaphor. But anytime I try to sit down with someone foreign to watch football, they need 30 minutes of explanation of the rules. Baseball, too. Boxing is very clear: two elements, and one is going to win. That struggle is human, and it’s such a simple skeletal framework to hang meat on.”
The Royale, of course, isn’t merely about boxing; it’s also about the racial struggles Johnson faced as an African-American man. Writing about the subject of race can be difficult, but Ramirez, the son of Cuban immigrants, found inspiration in the works of other playwrights, local theater hero and MacArthur “genius” grant winner Tarell Alvin McCraney (the Brothers/Sisters trilogy) and August Wilson (Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences and The Piano Lesson).
“Had I not read every August Wilson play ever, I might not have written The Royale,” Ramirez admits. “His voice is such an important part of what made me a writer. These things are in my theatrical DNA. . . . And Tarell, he’s influenced my work tremendously. His language is gorgeous, but he never forgets the medium or the bodies on stage. He never forgets the physical elements of theater.”
The physical aspects of The Royale are important, but Ramirez’s primary concern was respecting Johnson’s legacy.
“I was really sensitive knowing how important this story was in African-American history,” Ramirez says. “But I wanted poetic license. This play is inspired by Jack Johnson. I changed the character’s name not for legal protection but for creative protection so I could do what I wanted with the story, so I would not feel irresponsible changing history. I wasn’t interested in the biopic version. If anything, this play takes place during only one year of his life. I loved the way the film Selma did that with Martin Luther King Jr. It didn’t follow the entire journey, just gave you the tip of the iceberg. And you understand the iceberg.
“One of the things I wanted to make sure of — and this may sound wonky — was not so much getting the story of his life right but getting the adversity he faced right. Making sure the struggles and the threats he faced were right, that was what important to me, not creating a Wikipedia version of his life.”
Aygemang Clay, the actor who portrays Johnson in GableStage’s production, not only physically trained for the role but also researched Johnson’s life extensively once he took the part, immersing himself in sources like Ken Burns’ documentary Unforgivable Blackness. He views The Royale as a relevant story for our time.
“It’s not just the story of Jack Johnson — it’s also the story of Jackie Robinson and Barack Obama,” Clay says. “There are a lot of things that go with being the first to do something. You can be isolated and ostracized and targeted. It’s a lonely road. I’ve been exploring that. . . . It’s weird, watching history repeat itself. These same issues occur today. In many ways it’s disheartening — Jack Johnson was so talented. He had a patent for a wrench. He played bass guitar. And he was persecuted for the color of his skin. I’m glad we’re in a position to tell his story.”
If You Go
What: ‘The Royale’ by Marco Ramirez
When: Saturday through June 26; 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays
Where: GableStage, 1200 Anastasia Ave #230, Coral Gables
Tickets: $42-$60; http://www.gablestage.org/