Jack Johnson, the first Black heavyweight boxing champion, won his title in the 1900s. Yet in the Aurora Theatre Company’s staging of “The Royale,” it’s argued that Johnson’s story is just as relevant in 2017.
Written by Marco Ramirez, of “Orange is the New Black” and “Sons of Anarchy,” the play tells of Johnson’s rise to the championship — though his name is changed to Jay Jackson to allow for creative liberties to be taken. Told through six scenes dubbed “rounds,” the play is a psychological study, chronicling the adversities Jackson (and Johnson) faced. In order to fight the white reigning champion, Jackson pushes against rampant segregation and Jim Crow laws and must face the violent aftermath that follows his victory.
In an interview with The Daily Californian, Calvin Thompson, who plays Jay “The Sport” Jackson himself, drew contemporary parallels to Johnson’s use of his status as a celebrity-athlete to break barriers and fight for equality.
“You have in this day and age so many football players, basketball players, a lot of people using their platforms,” he said. “They’re using their platform to let people know that Black lives do matter. It’s kind of crazy that when you think of someone who changes history, by being the first. It’s as powerful as taking the knee, if not more powerful.”
Director Darryl Jones also argued the contemporary political relevance of the play, stating that it might show that our nation has not come as far since the early 20th century as commonly believed. As the boxing champion title was viewed as proof of white supremacy because of the fact that only white champions were previously allowed to earn it, riots followed Jack Johnson’s invalidation of this supremacy. Jones compared this reaction to the anger and resentment that arose from Obama’s presidency, leading to “the fallout we are seeing now.”
“There is this parallel that whenever there’s a step forward, there’s some kind of retribution or repercussions, but it’s always better to take the step forward. The casualties of war are unfortunate, but when we’re moving in the right direction, they’re necessary,” Jones said. “I think that as a country, we have to look at racism as not just a problem specific to particular groups, but we have to look at these issues as Americans. All of us need to say, ‘what can we do to make things better.’ ”
While the play’s emphasis is upon telling a historically based story, Jones also described the musical influences within, claiming that boxing is both a type of jazz and a form of dance. Jones emphasized the importance of Joe Orrach as the show’s co-choreographer and boxing coach, as Orrach ensures the authenticity of each boxing movement. Thompson shared that Orrach frequently invoked jazz as a means of teaching the rhythm behind boxing, explaining that boxers are often introduced to ballet to improve the movement of their feet and bodies. Thompson analyzed the show’s choreography as far greater than any simple boxing movements.
“There is boxing, there is sparring, but it’s much more. There’s so much more outside of that,” he said.
The music and rhythm of “The Royale” reaches an apex, said Jones, during the boxing rounds. To a perfectly timed beat, the actors vocalize percussions and mobilize percussions, clap and act all at once, which Jones described as immensely challenging to coordinate, but equally rewarding once completed.
“You think you’re going to go see a play about boxing. You think there are gonna be people punching each other, it’s gonna look like ‘Rocky’ or something like that. But what I’ve done is I’ve used stylized choreography. The playwright says there really is no need to ever throw a blow,” Jones said.
Jones emphasized that telling stories akin to that of the first Black heavyweight boxing champion ultimately highlights issues with representation and access within the arts. The director recalled a recent conversation with Dominique Morisseau, the playwright behind the Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s acclaimed “Ain’t Too Proud.” They discussed the importance of people of color attending plays about people of color, in light of the fact that theater-going audiences tend to be by majority white. For “The Royale,” Jones passionately emphasized the importance of young Black and Latinx people being in the audience.
“I hope that African Americans, Latino Americans, Asian Americans and white people come to see it,” he continued. “It’s written by a Cuban American and it’s about African Americans and their journey and their struggle and it parallels situations today. I think it will mean a lot to them.”
“The Royale” will run at the Main Stage of the Aurora Theatre Company through Dec. 3.
Caroline Smith covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].