Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Royale ***

After the success of The Great White Hope, Howard Sackler’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1967 play about the career of early 20th-century black boxer Jack Johnson, starring James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander, it takes an act of bravery to write another play on that subject. Playwright Marco Ramirez’s drama, now in previews at Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, focuses on the attempt to arrange an interracial championship bout between the black champion, called here Jay “The Sport” Jackson, with Bixby, the retired world champion. We meet Jay (Khris Davis); his trainer Wynton (Clarke Peters); Fish (McKinley Belcher III), Jay’s sparring partner; Max (John Lavelle), his white manager; and Nina (Montego Glover of “Memphis”), his sister. The emphasis is on what motivates Jackson and what collateral damage he is willing to overlook. The play would be rather pedestrian if not for the superbly stylized direction by Rachel Chavkin (“Preludes” and “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812”) which dramatically elevates the material. No choreographer is listed so the credit for staging the almost balletic fight scenes must belong to Chavkin. Punches are percussively replaced by claps and stomps. The staging of the climactic match is even more surprising. The production is enhanced by Nick Vaughn’s monochromatic brown plank set and Dede M. Ayile’s period costumes. The actors mostly succeed in enlivening their rather generic characters. Although the material is a bit thin and formulaic, Chaikin's energetic staging made me more than willing to overlook the play’s flaws. Running time: 85 minutes, no intermission.

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