Semaj Miller, Walter Coppage, Teonna Wesley, and Joshua Gleeson in “The Royale” (Don Ipock)
Kansas City Rep’s Artistic Director Stuart Carden says that he’s been wanting to share “The Royale” with audiences since his “first days at KCRep.” It was even announced as part of the company’s season two years ago before everything was forced into delay or cancellation, and fortunately, this was only the former. It must be satisfying to finally see a dream that long in the making finally come to life—and even more so to see it done so exceptionally well.
“The Royale” is the story of Jay “The Sport” Jackson, a Black boxer in the early years of the 20th Century. As a character, Jackson was heavily inspired by Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world. While fictionalized, Jackson’s story—the highs, the lows, the accolades, and the endless racist assaults on both systemic and individual levels—closely mirrors that of his real-life counterpart.
Marco Ramirez’s (“Orange Is the New Black,” “Daredevil”) 90-minute play tells Jackson’s story in the lead-up to an unprecedented title fight between himself and a white fighter. Directed and choreographed by Steph Paul, KC Rep’s production turns boxing into an intimate affair. Rather than having these men fight each other, the sport is heavily, elegantly stylized. Each enclosed in their own rectangular pen of a spotlight, the fighters face outward, their eyes fixed on the fourth wall—on us—rather than each other. Their punches land in air, scored by “body percussion”—stomps and claps and chest-slaps deftly performed with emotive force by ensemble actors Robert Vardiman and Terrace Wyatt, Jr—giving us the “language” of the fight and ultimately highlighting the deep emotional violence happening in the play over the physical.
Organizing this fight might have been near impossible, as boxing promoter Max (Joshua Gleeson)—the self-proclaimed “world’s only interracial fight promoter”—repeatedly reminds Jay. But more unthinkable is what might happen after it’s over, if Jay wins. Max, Jay’s friend and sparring partner Fish (Rasell Holt), and his trainer Wynton (Walter Coppage) serve as anchor points, guiding lights, and an essential support network for the boxer. But it’s a visit later in the show from his sister Nina (Teonna Wesley, an absolute powerhouse) that truly grounds him in the reality of the era: That he cannot transcend racism by being good at his sport, and in fact, that being as good as he is has the potential to stoke those racist flames even more. In real life, Jack Johnson’s wins were, in fact, met with violence from white mobs.
This is a reality Jay might be shielded from to a degree, but his money and fame and talent cannot protect Black communities and individuals from the rage of those mobs and the vengence they seek for Jackson’s crime of being a Black man thriving in what they insist can only be a white man’s world. Jay is at once a champion at the top of his field—even a proto-celebrity athlete—and relegated to eternal underdog status, playing a game he can never win. Semaj Miller is a marvel navigating this range, capturing Jay’s immense charisma as well as both the fire and the deeply buried pain that drive him.
Staged in KC Rep’s more intimate (but still quite grand) downtown theater, all of the elements at play in “The Royale” fuse seamlessly for a powerfully electric 90 minutes. Yu Shibagaki’s set is comprised of just a few pieces—some stools moving here and there, a static punching bag, all of it mostly made of rich, worn wood and leather. It’s a perfectly stark base for Minjoo Kim’s sumptuous lighting and Mikhail Fiksel’s intricate sound design, rounded out by Izumi Inaba gorgeous costumes, which have a nostalgic softness to them. That deep visual lushness, punctuated by Paul’s rhythmic body percussion and the harshness of the subject matter flood the audience with a wall of appropriately disconcerting contrasts.
“The Royale” is a powerful, exquisitely produced piece of theater and (unfortunately never not timely) social commentary. It’s also going to serve as the inaugural production of the company’s new community touring program, KCRep for All, with free performances scheduled in 10 neighborhoods around Kansas City. It’s honestly hard to think of a better production to launch such an ambitious new program.
“The Royale” runs at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre (Copaken Stage, 1 H&R Block Way) through March 27 before embarking on its free community tour. For more information, visit kcrep.org.