Writer Marco Ramirez knows how to script conflict. In television's Orange Is the New Black he cemented Red Reznikov's fate with the Mafia when she punctured the breast implant of a mob wife, and in Sons of Anarchy a meeting between the Niners and the Lobos ended in a hail of gunfire.
Conflict appears again in his boxing play The Royale, making its regional premiere at Rec Room Arts, although Ramirez relies on audience members' imaginations and stream-of-consciousness dialogue to illustrate the physical brutality of the sport. Loosely inspired by Galveston's African American boxing champ Jack Johnson, the real battle in the play is the main character's crisis of conscience.
Director Brandon Weinbrenner, who just wrapped up directing The Humans at the Alley Theatre, tells us of the risks main character Jay Jackson faces if he agrees to fight the undefeated world champion, a white man.
"Jay is faced with, does his potential victory as the first African American heavyweight champion in boxing — does that then put in danger a subset of people who are vulnerable," says Weinbrenner. "Will there be a white mob mentality?"
To Weinbrenner, the choices for Jackson mirror the debate between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois."What's the right way to deal with racism in America?" Given the choice of Washington's "don't ruffle any feathers and use the mind" or Du Bois' "get aggressive and get in their face," Jackson chooses the latter.
The planned fight is rigged so that reigning champ Bixby will walk away with 90 percent of the purse, no matter the outcome. "Jay chooses to go ahead and fight the fight because it’s important to prove that he can be the best fighter in the world," says Weinbrenner.
"[Ramirez] has a fantastic gift for rhythm and dialogue. His play moves. And you can hear the musicality. It’s extraordinary how minimal the play is and how it strips away everything you don’t need to do the story. It's very, very impressive," says Weinbrenner. "You feel the heartbeat of this play on the paper; he gives a fantastic road map and it’s really up to us using the specific space that is the Rec Room."
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Weinbrenner describes the play as raw, visceral and energetic, and says it's a fantastic fit for Rec Room. "It’s exciting and youthful and I think that it really adds to the pulse that Rec Room has created: a theater company that challenges the norms and really puts the actors in front in their intimate audience space. It's really a lot of fun."
Bringing the role of Jay Jackson to life is Brandon J. Morgan (Stages' My Mañana Comes, Alley's Skeleton Crew). His trainer Wynton is played by Shawn Hamilton (Alley's Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap, Picasso at the Lapin Agile). Max, his white manager and promoter who finally secures a fight with the heavyweight champion Bixby, is portrayed by Josh Morrison (Stages' The Great American Trailer Park Musical, Alma en venta). Jarred Tettey (Classical's The Return of Sherlock Holmes, Hamlet) has the role of green up-and-comer Fish, who becomes a sparring partner to his mentor Jackson. Estee Burks (Obsidian and SRO's Passing Strange, Landing Theatre's In Darfur) has been cast as Nina, Jackson's fierce big sister.
Performances are scheduled for April 10 through April 27 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays at Rec Room, 100 Jackson. For information, call 713-344-1291 or visit recroomarts.org/the-royale. $15 to $40.