At this point, it’s par for the course to call a production by the folks at the excitingly inventive Rec Room Arts, a knockout. This time, however, sighting the term knockout is both flatteringly and narratively descriptive. Yep, this is a boxing show. A show written by Marco Ramirez and loosely inspired by the career of Galveston native Jack Johnson who, at the height of the Jim Crow era, became the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion.
Like most stories about boxing, or about any sport for that matter, The Royale is full of expected tropes and clichés. There’s the hustling fight promoter who makes things happen, the world-weary coach with the motivational speeches, the promising fighter who gets asked to become his victor’s sparring partner.
And like most stories about racism in sports, The Royale shows us that Jack is a second-class citizen at best among white fighters and fans alike through (initially) top line slights. These include white fighters unwilling to fight him, a promoter who likens him to a grizzly bear, bigoted questions from the press about why black men take to fighting and if they are by nature aggressive?
There’s also the general sports lines we’ve come to expect. The “you with me or against me” talk, assertions that the underdog is “gonna make history” and standard discussions about whether the retiring white heavyweight champ will actually give Jack a shot at the title?
But we quickly realize, then when it comes to The Royale (under Brandon Weinbrenner’s assured direction) none of this matters. This isn’t a show about fancy plot footwork or jabbing dialogue, here it’s all about the flow, the movement, the rhythm, the actor’s booming clapping, stomping, shouting and breathwork that peppers the play like a thunderous extra character.
Movement Director, Harrison Guy, has this cast working like a glorious living percussion section for much of the show, using hands and feet to emphasize the action. Fight scenes (staged predominantly with both actors facing the audience) are made more thrilling by the ear-splitting rat a tat and pounding being produced on the minimal wood panel floor (Set Design Stefan Azizi). We feel the urgency of the press conference leading up to Jack’s bout with the world champ thanks to the noise of punches being thrown onstage. Funny lines are made even punchier by the precise bark of “ha!” from the cast.
Then there’s the fighting itself (with an assist from Boxing Coach Luke Fedell), which looks beautifully balletic and gutturally aggressive, as good boxing should.
It’s all heart racing, and then suddenly it’s heartbreaking.
Ramirez may have cornered us with a feel-good fight story, but he thankfully widens the ring to show us the fight within Jack himself. Already worried about threats to his life, Jack is made even more concerned on the day of the big match by a visit from his sister, who explains to him in a most personal way, what winning this fight actually means. That maybe the white man isn’t ready for a black world champ. Not just not ready, but most certainly willing and able to retaliate if things don’t go their way.
The confluence of what ensues from here, Ramirez’s terrific plot trick and his ability to show us Jack’s doubt paired with Guy’s climactic final fight scene choreography sends us into a panic of look away, don’t look away proportions. Truly one of the most all-around electrifying finales we’ve seen this season.
And without question, all made possible by an impeccably talented cast.
Known for his hear-him-way-up-in-the-rafters bellowing voice, Josh Morrison as Max, the promoter, gives just enough grease to his management style and plenty of energy to his bout play-by-plays. Affecting a light Southie accent (thankfully not in a Mark Wahlberg “how’s ya mutha?” kind of fashion), Morrison is every bit the hustler we want him to be.
Rivaling Morrison for the stentorian voice is Shawn Hamilton as boxing coach, Wynton. Hamilton is one of those actors that exudes a kind of cool or at least ease on stage, no matter the role. Here he mixes it that with a sagacity only a black man who used to box blindfolded for petty change could understand. It’s a subtle but stunning performance from an actor we wish we saw more of in Houston.
Playing the sweet one, the naïve one, the one we like the most is challenging to make complex, but Jarred Tettey as Fish, Jack’s sparring partner brings depth to the role. Whether indignantly standing up for himself when wrongly accused or simply being a loyal fan, Tettey brings much-needed lightness to this ultimately disturbing play.
Estée Burks (another actor we should see on stage more often) as Nina, Jack’s sister, goes from imperious to impressed to impugning in no time flat. And she does so with such masterful control that we can’t keep our eyes off her. That the final breathtaking scene works as well as it does is thanks in large part to Burks’ grab-her-character-by-the-throat fierceness.
Finally, there is no boxing show without your boxer, Brandon Morgan, as Jack. Morgan seemingly burst out of nowhere about a year ago in Houston and since then has been getting role after role and rave after rave. Now he has another to add to the list, and where to start the bravos? The man boxes excellently for a good portion of the show. When he’s not boxing, he’s training like a
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Sure, the man is covered in sweat by the end, but even the physical exertion and the body’s natural response doesn’t begin to illustrate the incredible yet invisible effort Morgan puts into this character. What we get is pure energy on stage, the kind that grounds and no doubt pushes his cast mates to their personal bests.
Knowing the kind of risky, edgy, something to say shows Rec Room is known for, it was a little surprising to learn that a boxing show about a real-life champ was part of their program. What wasn’t surprising is that they chose a show that gives you all the usual boxing ring story stuff but then turns the thing on its head to give you so much more.
For that, we don’t need any of Guy’s movement direction to make us clap, stomp and shout. We’re already doing it.
The Royale continues through April 27 at Rec Room, 100 Jackson. For information, call 713-344-1291 or visit recroomarts.org. $15 to $40.