Boxing is a sport filled with great drama and a rich history of stories, lending themselves to books, movies and plays. This is especially true when it comes to our nation’s race relations and how they have played out in sports.
It’s what makes the story of “The Royale,” a play written by Marco Ramirez about Jay “The Sport” Jackson (loosely based on Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight world champion) and his quest to become a world champion, a daring and exciting inauguration for Sean Daniels in his first pick for the Arizona Theatre Company as its new artistic director.
It is 1905, Texas, and Jackson’s trash-talking, entertaining style of boxing is a threat to his white competitors and audiences. With an inherently theatrical design, “The Royale” portrays boxing matches without ever having a punch land.
“When I read The Royale, I got very excited about the notion of a play that tackles the issues it tackles,” says Michael John Garcés, a long-time friend of Daniels who directs the show.
“It tackles the politics of race and the politics of gender in a very entertaining fashion. It is a play that is funny and sad and at the same time hopeful.”
Garces says he was honored to be a part of Daniels’ inaugural season as he has long admired and respected him as an artistic director. He was also thrilled to direct a show that has the type of language he responds to and the type of issues that are important to him as an artist.
“On a most basic level, I just love the play,” Garcés says.
“The language is really playable, both formally and completely natural in the actor’s mouths. It is equally Shakespearean and flows like Jay-Z. (Ramirez) has really created a kind of very idiomatic verse of theater. We call things poetic when they are pretty, and it is not about that. There are parts of the play that are very visceral.”
Playing the part of Jackson is Bechir Sylvain, who grew up with the playwright in Miami and performed in one of his early shorts, “I Am Batman” back in 2004. He unsuccessfully auditioned for “The Royale’s” premiere in Los Angeles and was blown away by the production he saw there.
“The writing and the way he set it up was so different from any play I’d read before,” Sylvain says. “It’s such a big story. There are so many layers. It has to be big and theatrical because of who the person was. Jack Johnson was that big. Marco really did such an incredible job to create this image of how huge that moment was, but also of that man.”
At the time of the play, African Americans were not allowed to fight white boxers. There were separate black and white champions. The story captures the spectacle that was boxing during this period. It also takes a step away from pure realism to create the tension and intensity of a boxing match.
“What Marco has done so intelligently is really use the language,” Garcés says.
“People love watching fights, but it can actually obscure what is going on in the themes he wants to explore. By not enacting the fight, which we all know isn’t a real fight, we’re watching the play, the emotions, the drama of words and characters playing out. We have chosen to enact it in a very presentational, almost storytelling way for the audience but still have a complex story picture.”
It’s a physically demanding choice and Garcés brought in a former professional boxer, Michael Gutierrez, as a consultant to work with his actors on how to throw punches, use the correct footwork, and understand the strategy of boxing.
Before the show, Sylvain, himself a fan of boxing, had learned boxing from a trainer at a traditional boxing gym.
“He taught me all the basics and the appreciation of it, the genius of it,” Sylvain says. “It’s an art. It’s as intellectual as chess. You have a certain amount of pieces and both players have the same amount of pieces and you have to outmatch the opponent. Same with boxing. You have the same amount of punches and you have to find a way to outbox and use the right combinations.”
He says Johnson was a defensive player who would let his opponent box all day and get tired—for this was a time when they would go up to 40 rounds.
It demands stamina and strength from the actors as they are constantly moving and throwing punches.
“It’s twice as hard,” Sylvain says. “You’re throwing punches, using your shoulder and hip as if you are boxing, but without making contact.”
He says he and Roberto Antonio Marin, the actor playing Fish, have been working out in the gym together and that they every time they do the show, which opened in Tucson on September 7 and moves to Phoenix on October 3, they are drenched in sweat. However, he says the effect is well worth it and it makes for a powerful show, something he credits Garcés with creating.
Sylvain has high praise for Garcés, calling him an actor’s director, and saying, “I will work with this man in anything. If he was like, ‘I’m doing a show about Elmo,’ I’d say, ‘I’m in, let’s do it.’ He is so smart and there isn’t a thing in this show that is there just to be there. Everything on stage he has planned out. He’s a genius.”
Garcés points out that while Jay is clearly the main character, “The Royale” is an ensemble play where all the roles are quite large. Jay’s opponent, Fish, brings in a youthful exuberance and hope that contrasts with Jay’s mature experience. His character underlines what is lost and what is gained in the quest for a championship.
Wynton brings in a sense of history, the older man who knows what history has cost. He’s lived it and knows the possibilities but still moves forward. Max, the only white character in the play and the most privileged person on the stage is, as Garcés describes him, a “profoundly conflicted character who is trying to make positive change, but mostly for commercial purposes.”
Then there is Nina, Jay’s sister, who is a powerful character and names the dangers of what he is doing. She supports and opposes him and is a lynchpin that both Garcés and Sylvain say are necessary to making the show work. Sylvain points out that it is especially compelling that Ramirez avoided the trap of using the girlfriend or wife trope that is so common to boxing stories and instead creates a sister.
“The element of the sister was genius,” Sylvain says. “It brought in the vulnerability and the importance and also the danger of what he’s doing because his family could get killed by this. She was the only element that could stop him. She is the one who makes him second guess and really focus on what he is doing and was it really worth it. She is powerful, even more powerful than Jay. She brings in every concern, every danger that is going on outside of the world of boxing into his world.”
The real Johnson, the son of two slaves including a father who fought for the Union in the Civil War, had a hard-fought battle to the title of championship as the previous undefeated white champion initially retired rather than face him in the ring. When James Jeffries did come out of retirement to fight him, he was hailed as “the great white hope” and said it was “for the sole purpose of proving that white man is better than a Negro.”
In the aftermath of the fight, which Johnson undisputedly won before an audience of 20,000 in Nevada on July 4, 1910, race riots broke out in 25 states and 50 cities where at least 20 people were killed.
“His courage is definitely something I want to capture and how innovative he was and how comfortable he was in his own skin,” Sylvain says. “He went to white schools and never thought of himself as inferior. He married outside of his race—and this was back then and this was in Texas he was doing this stuff, so it was like he was trying to get killed.”
It was his marriages to white women and his dalliances with white prostitutes that would get him arrested and convicted under the Mann Act (even though the incidents took place before the Mann Act was enacted). He skipped bail and left the country, living in Europe, South America and Mexico before finally giving up to U.S. authorities and serving a little less than a year in Leavenworth.
The late Sen. John McCain led an effort under President Obama to have Johnson posthumously pardoned. It wasn’t until May 24, 2018, 105 years after his conviction, that President Trump, after consulting with actor Sylvester Stallone, gave Johnson a full posthumous pardon.
Sylvain says his legacy is something important he wants to portray—both with his strength and his vulnerability.
“I wanted to make sure I bring his vulnerability to the stage,” Sylvain says. “There were moments where he understood that what he was doing will cause people to die. It was very important for me to see how hard it was for him. It wasn’t just box and I don’t care. He thought it through and took that chance and now we have this part of history that will never be erased.”
Herberger Theatre Center, 222 E. Monroe Street, Phoenix, arizonatheatre.org, various times Thursday, October 3, to Sunday, October 20, tickets start at $40.