That’s because the play contemplates entrenched racism in America, particularly recognizing how success by members of historically oppressed demographics can trigger vicious backlash. Ramirez’s script takes inspiration from the true story of early 20th-century African American boxer Jack Johnson, whose victory over a white heavyweight champion sparked deadly riots across the country.
In “The Royale,” the Johnson figure is Jay “The Sport” Jackson (played by Jaysen Wright), whose enthusiasm for fighting a white titleholder begins to waver as the costs of his likely victory become clear. Striving to keep Jay safe, fit and focused are his African American trainer, Wynton (Jay Frisby), and sparring partner, Fish (Clayton Pelham Jr.). Meanwhile the white fight promoter, Max (Chris Genebach), wavers between caution and daring in his business dealings, while treating Jay with chauvinistic condescension in public and tactical deference in private.
Shrewd non-naturalistic touches keep “The Royale” from bogging down in sports-saga detail: The actors clap expressionistically at strategic moments, adding adrenaline and suggestions of crowd frenzy. And the fights duke it out in heightened manner, with the contenders often facing the audience, rather than each other, and the blows flying in slow motion across the atmospheric retro-boxing-ring set. (Scenic designer Debra Kim Sivigny also devised the fine period costumes.) Kenny Neal’s crucial sound design manifests the violence: Knockout blows are underscored by boomings so deep and brutal they sound like basso fighter jets.
Beautifully orchestrated by Hernandez, the nonliteral staging touches work all the better because they complement richly realized performances. Wright’s ebullient and cocksure Jay, who grabs our interest and sympathy from the start, also reveals emotional depths. Genebach’s Max is a diverting wheeler-dealer, and Lolita Marie’s cool intensity, as Jay’s perspicacious sister, Nina, proves essential to the play’s message and mood. In a capable performance that belies his recent addition to the cast (after another actor had to withdraw), Frisby does justice to the play’s most haunting speech, when Wynton remembers being exploited to fight blindfolded in moneymaking slugfests that left the ring littered with bloody coins and teeth.
Dreamlike projections designed by Kelly Colburn — an agitated crowd, a mysterious silhouette, lights surging across a groggy boxer’s vision — correlate with the themes of both personal and societal conflict. Jay finds himself in a terrible position, as a brawl he craves feeds into another, broader one that he learns to fear. We can still feel America reeling in that second melee.
The Royale, by Marco Ramirez. Directed and choreographed by Paige Hernandez; lighting design, Sarah Tundermann; fight choreographer, Cliff Williams III. About 90 minutes. $59-$74. Through Oct. 27 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, Md. olneytheatre.org. Running Jan. 30-Feb. 23 at 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Rd., Tysons. 1ststage.org.