"The Royale" at The Rep is a royal treat full of drama and deep passion
There is a special place in this world for the athlete who soars above all others, and we always wonder what it is that makes them so unique. Certainly physical gifts are a big part of the package. So is training and skill.
But more than anything, it is the mind that turns the great athlete into something from another world, a world reserved for only a very few. It is a mind that makes each of us wonder.
That wonder is at the heart of Marco Ramirez's "The Royale," which opened Friday night at the Stiemke Theater in The Rep.
There is, to every superstar, a rhythm that drives inside the mind, catching each wave of achievement. That rhythm is unique to the heroes of the sporting world, and nothing could be more moving than this story set in the world of the sweetest of sciences, professional boxing.
It is based on the story of Jack Johnson, the first black boxer to earn the precious title of "Heavyweight Champion of the World."
Johnson wore his privilege on one shoulder and his burden on the other. He was a fierce and undefeated fighter. He was also a black man scrapping for entry as an equal into the world of whites in a time of unfiltered racism.
Johnson shook the world to its very roots, stunning it when he defeated the white champion, James J. Jeffries, who came out of retirement for the 1910 "Fight of the Century."
It is that story, of the athlete and the man who wants to change his world, that is told with almost breathtaking simplicity in this production. The hero is called Jay "Sport" Jackson, and he has everything it takes to be a champion.
This story was told in the play and movie "The Great White Hope," as well as in a famous documentary by Ken Burns. And the story of the underdog boxer has flourished in films like "Rocky" and "Raging Bull." But there is a profound difference between those and Royale.
This story is told without a punch being landed on anyone. Oh, punches are thrown, but they are in virtual isolation with boxers on opposite sides of the simple set (Scott Davis, designer). That isolation may well be a signal to the lonely journey of a champion, despite the supporters and hangers-on who surround him.
The night of the fight, Jackson's manager says to him, "When you go into that ring, son, you go alone."
Jackson is a character with dimensions of both the heart and the head that are a conflicting mix of both honor and shame. This story is told simply, but there is nothing placid about it. The power and shame, the certainty and the doubt all spill out in this emotional production.
David St. Louis is Jackson, and he is the embodiment of the heavyweight champion of the world. Watching him alternately fiery and brooding, it's a vivid memory of Sonny Liston, the bear who lost the title to the young Cassius Clay. He captures the ambivalence of this enigmatic figure.
His muscular frame is on full display and is equalled only by the display of the depth of his devotion to his task. St. Louis is a spectacular actor whose connection with the audience is as ferocious as his left hook.
He is surrounded by four other actors who fill in the blanks around Jackson.
Xavier Scott Evans is Fish, the sparring partner for Jackson, and Cedric Turner is the longtime manager and best, and perhaps, only trusted friend. Evans is a character full of humor who balances the darkness that is Jackson.
John Gregorio is the promoter who guides Jackson's career and who is a voice of reason in the face of the outlandish and garish life of his boxer.
Sade' E. Moore has the role of Jackson's sister and also the world champion in the final fight scene. It's an imaginative staging by director Kevin Ramsey and a dance that left me breathless.
Much of the drama and impact of this production comes from an incomparable sound design by Josh Schmidt, a Nicolet High School graduate who has become a world class designer.
Clarinets, cellos and trombones mix with the thump of a punch the beat of a heart, the sound of a boxer skipping rope and a whistle that carried me along a smooth trajectory of this story. It is hard to overemphasize the glory of this sound design.
The final moment of this play is excruciatingly dramatic. Jackson is fighting not only a champion but his personal demons and his history. Under all of the pressures, all of the questions and all of the threats, Jackson has a moment of clarity when he explains his world.
"I'm going to make it right," he says. And you know he is going to succeed even with all of the blockades set in his path.
"The Royale" runs through Nov. 6.
Production credits: Director, Kevin Ramsey; Scenic Designer, Scott Davis; Costume Designer, Alison Siple; Lighting Designer, Thom Weaver; Sound Designer, Josh Schmidt' Casting Director, JC Clementz; Stage Manager, Richelle Harrington Calin.
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