Title fights don’t have to last long to be thrilling and memorable — and neither do plays. The Royale, a stunning play by Miami native Marco Ramirez, illustrates that point in one of the most absorbing productions staged by artistic director Joseph Adler in his 18 seasons at the helm of GableStage.
Ramirez’s award-winning play, already produced in Los Angeles, London and most recently at New York’s Lincoln Center, is so many things: a psychological study of the man who became the first black heavyweight champion of the world. A portrait of deeply ingrained, persistent racism. A look at the making of a superstar black athlete.
But most of all, the play is a stylized, blazingly theatrical triumph that keeps audience members on the edge of their seats (metaphorically and sometimes actually) for virtually all of its 70-minute running time.
Ramirez, now a much-in- demand TV writer and producer (Marvel’s Daredevil, Marvel’s The Defenders and more), uses the real-life story of the first black world heavyweight champ, Jack Johnson, as inspiration for The Royale. He’s not the first playwright to have done so: Howard Sackler won the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for his dramatic interpretation of Johnson’s story, The Great White Hope.
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In The Royale, the black heavyweight champ laser-focused on becoming the world champion is Jay “The Sport” Jackson. Ramirez’s script specifies an imaginative, less-is- more approach to staging the play, which his precisely what Adler and his creative collaborators do.
Jackson (Aygemang Clay) and his opponent-turned- sparring partner Fish (Ryan George) don’t actually pummel each other, for example. Instead, as the men face the crowd watching them, the sounds of gloves hitting flesh are created by the actors stomping or clapping (South Florida performing artist Rudi Goblen is responsible for the impressively precise rhythm and movement, Bert Rodriguez for the boxing moves).
When Jay finally does get his title bout with Bernard “The Champ” Bixby — the white boxer who has demanded 90 percent of the purse, win or lose, to come out of retirement for the fight — it isn’t the older man who stands in the ring alongside the contender. It’s someone else, a figure who haunts Jay’s thoughts, a reminder of the past, of the reason for his fierce determination to supply proof of his equality (or superiority), of the dangerous stakes that come with being a black man bent on becoming famous by vanquishing a white one in 1910.
GableStage’s production of The Royale manages to be simultaneously stripped down and incredibly rich. Lyle Baskin’s set is a mere suggestion of a boxing ring, a gym, locker rooms. Jeff Quinn’s lighting isolates and defines. Matt Corey’s sound design enhances what the actors contribute live, from the smack of a punch to the music meant to be coming from a simple gramophone. At a key point, costume designer Ellis Tillman puts the “sport” in Jay by dressing Clay in an elegant three-piece white suit set off by a matching gray bowler and boots.
The acting in The Royale is as intense, artful and efficient as Jay himself. Gregg Weiner, a Carbonell Award winner who has given so many great performances at GableStage and other South Florida theaters, adds another as Max, the white fight promoter made to understand that nothing less that the title fight will satisfy Jay. He also supplies the questions from the dogged reporters determined to unearth the challenger’s past and motives, questions Jay dodges as deftly as he avoids his opponents’ blows.
André L. Gainey is Jay’s trainer Wynton, an old timer whose disturbing beginnings as a fighter supply the play’s title — and give Gainey a particularly powerful monologue. George is affecting and effective as the simple man who gets swept into Jay’s orbit, for better and for worse. As Jay’s big sister Nina, a woman so aware of the probable repercussions of her brother’s victory that she travels to the title bout to warn or dissuade him or both, Shein Mompremier matches Clay in commanding strength and force of will.
And that’s saying something. Clay, who has TV credits from his work on Ballers, Rosewood, Burn Notice and Bloodline, is making his professional stage debut in The Royale. His star-is-born work in the play is layered, confident, charismatic, as if Jay were writing the playbook for Muhammad Ali and so many other fighters. In his first time at GableStage, Clay scores a knockout.
South Florida theater fans who remember Ramirez’s earlier plays from the days before he went off to Juilliard and then to major success in TV know what a fine, astute, evocative writer he is. At GableStage, The Royale is evidence of a mature talent — and of the provocative power of theater at its best.
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If You Go
What: ‘The Royale’ by Marco Ramirez.
Where: GableStage in the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, through June 26.
Information: 305-445- 1119 or http://www.gablestage.org/