The body of his first opponent has barely been picked up off the canvas when the hero of ACT’s current production of The Royale is caught with a racist jab. Promoter Max (R. Hamilton Wright) is talking to his fighter, Negro heavyweight champion of the world Jay “The Sport” Jackson (Jarrod M. Smith), about the possibility of a prizefight against the heavyweight champion of the world, a white fighter named Bixby. He is navigating the difficult terrain of race in the ring, building Jackson up while appealing to what the promoter sees as his natural talents.
“Don’t you think your people have a predilection for fighting?” says the promoter, a white man in a three-piece suit.
Jackson bristles. “Looking at the first two rows, it looks like your people have a predilection for watching,” he replies.
Jackson is talking about the most cherished seats at his boxing matches, which in the play’s early-20th-century setting are undoubtedly filled with white men and women. But in the Allen Theatre at ACT, the demographics are similar and the parallels are uncanny, brought to life by the fact that this production, directed by Ameenah Kaplan, treats the theater in the round like an arena, coaxing those in attendance to play along, clapping in unison like an amped-up throng as the action revs up and, at its pinnacle, actually cheering for the story’s hero. It is an uncommon sight in the theater, where effectively breaking the fourth wall is rarely so seemingly effortless, but it also leaves the theatergoer exposed. It is this largely white audience of 2016 that is watching a black man fight for his life in this play based loosely on the life of storied prizefighter Jack Johnson, and the battle is invigorating to behold.
This is largely due to the production’s choreography, which is set to a pulse-quickening staccato rhythm that comes and goes throughout. The fighters move with a seamlessness befitting their roles, though the stylized pantomime of fighting here demands more from them than the slip, dip, and drag of the boxer. This is first seen in the opening moments of this brisk one-act when Jackson faces off against a fresh-faced boxer straight from the shipyards (Lorenzo Roberts). As the match gets underway, the fighters turn away from each other and toward the audience, each then standing alone, shadow-boxing the other as the announcer provides a blow-by-blow account—an unexpected and surprisingly effective choice. Punches are landed with loud stomps that resonate from the central wooded platform throughout the theater and into the chests of the audience.
The effect is bracing and, for those willing to give themselves over to the production, can actually create the tension of a real fight. As the action intensifies and one boxer gains advantage over the other, the blocking shifts. There is no blood or swollen eyes here; the production has only its choreography and the physicality of its actors to communicate who is getting beaten and who is doing the beating. Jackson, all smiles and smack talk, dominates for most of the fight, but loses his edge.
“You are worried about winning this crowd,” says trainer Wynton (G. Valmont Thomas). “You forgot to win the fight.” Jackson does eventually win the fight, but his focus for almost the entirety of this production is outside the ring. This is, after all, where the real fight takes place.
Playwright Marco Ramirez covers a lot of ground in a work that runs just 70 minutes, his editing choices mirroring those of Hollywood boxing flicks that shift deftly between the psychology of the fight and the demands of family while moving headlong toward the culminating battle, stopping along the way for a stakes-setting press conference and training drills—though the montages of Rocky are replaced here with an astoundingly poetic scene featuring Jackson and a heavy bag beneath a spotlight.
What truly sets this story apart, though, are the complexities of race relations it manages to entertain—though it does at times move too swiftly from loaded moments. As Jackson progresses toward his prizefight against Bixby, he is shown both at battle with the culture that oppresses him and tantalized by it. He manages to date white women and stay in whites-only hotels, but Jackson is also underpaid and accused of thinking too highly of himself when, after learning of threats from gun-wielding bigots, he requests bodyguards.
It is only with the arrival of his sister, played with a powerful grace by newcomer Zenobia Taylor, that we see what is really at stake for both Jackson and the black community at large. On the eve of his big fight, as he is faced with conflicting expectations from all sides, Jackson can only exclaim, “I want this!”
Still, as is made so clear in this brilliantly staged production, he continues to shadowbox all those other voices. We are left wondering whom exactly he is fighting for. One hopes it isn’t those people in the first two rows. The Royale, ACT, 700 Union St., 292-7676, acttheatre.org. $20–$35. Ends Oct. 9.