The Royale is a Knockout Filled with Heart

by Lena Quach

The Royale, written by Marco Ramirez, is loosely based on the life of African American boxer, Jack Johnson, who was famous in the early 1900s for being the first black boxer who dared to step into the ring to challenge white boxer, James J. Jefferies. Jack Johnson wanted to prove he was the Heavyweight Champion of the World despite his color of skin. With no fear, he challenged a racist world and fought for change during the Jim Crow era where lynching and being killed were very real everyday fears for many African Americans. 

Erica Chamblee as Nina and Bechir Sylvain as Jay "The Sport" Jackson. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

Erica Chamblee as Nina and Bechir Sylvain as Jay “The Sport” Jackson. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

Marco Ramirez’s profoundly moving, beautifully written, and rhythmic play captured my attention and my heart by the end of the first action-packed scene. The direction, by Michael John Garcés, was very real, yet graceful, and many of the scenes reminded me of a carefully choreographed dance. It was hypnotizing to see the story unfold as the characters progressed and grew in front of my eyes. Of course, this play is more than just a play about boxing. This play is about the thirst for change and equality in a world of hate and racism. Being a Latina in 2019, I thirst for this change but that overwhelming sense of fear is all too real and relatable. I never thought I could relate to a play about boxing, but the drive and the need for diversity in an industry that is primarily white reminded me of my days as a professional ballerina where people of color are few and far between.

Jay “The Sport” Jackson, the tall, strong, and driven heavyweight champion played by Bechir Sylvain, was truly a master of acting. My eyes never left Sylvain as he embodied every side of Jay’s character from the cocky know-it-all in the ring to the pained and hurt brother who wants to make everything better for his beloved sister. I was truly moved and inspired by Sylvain’s performance. 

Roberto Antonio Martin played the young boxer, Fish. Martin’s physical acting and movement quality were thrilling to watch. Especially in the first scene when both Jay and Fish are in the ring but facing the audience. The way Martin responded physically was really a sight to see. The way Fish develops throughout the play was alluring. Fish is soft-hearted and willing to do whatever he can to protect those he cares about. Martin was a great presence and addition to the already insanely talented cast. 

Wynton was played by the seasoned actor Edwin Lee Gibson. Gibson’s performance of Wynton was stoic, deep, and sometimes filled with resentment. I was extremely moved by the completely silent scene where Wynton is going through a journey of deep, despondent, fear-filled emotions. Gibson’s eyes glistened and swelled up with tears as he looked out into the audience and then slowly moved across the stage. I felt for the characters as I followed his silent journey. It was utterly heartbreaking yet beautiful to watch. 

Erica Chamblee, who played Nina, was mesmerizing and haunting. Silent for the majority of the play, her face spoke a thousand words as she slowly moved around the stage and the other characters as a reminder of Jay’s thirst for equality. Chamblee’s performance had my heart jumping out of my chest and surprised me more than once. 

The role of Max was played by Peter Howard. Howard did a magnificent job of portraying Jay’s somewhat nervous and easily frustrated business partner and manager. Howard almost acts like a narrator at certain points an, at times, like a slew of reporters that question Jay throughout the play. He was a joy to watch. 

The cast of the Royale. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

The cast of the Royale. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

Along with the amazingly talented cast came the beautiful scenic design by Misha Kachman. It was minimal but highlighted when needed. Especially when the stage itself transforms into a boxing ring at the end of the show. It was truly part of the show and used with grace. The lighting design by Allen Willner was absolutely gorgeous- the lighting created a perfect picture frame for the story being told. The sound design by Brian Jerome Peterson made the audience feel like they were really present and part of the scene. The use of a crowd cheering in the background to the sound of a picture being taken during the interview scenes were tastefully done. 

Overall, The Royale, even though based in the past, felt contemporary and called to mind current affairs in the United States. The struggle for change and equality and the rage and fear that is– all too real. The love and pride for someone you love. Grief, resentment, and the need to succeed are all emotions you discover and ponder on even after you leave the theater after seeing this truly stunning production. This play brought tears to my eyes and I found myself being the first of many to give this amazing production, and cast, the standing ovation they deserve. 

You can see this knockout performance now thru September 28th at the Temple of Music and Art ( 330 S Scott Ave, Tucson, AZ 85701) and you can buy tickets at www.arizonatheatre.org or (520) 628-9129.

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