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Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Presents "The Royale"

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Lincoln Center Theater
At the Mitzi E. Newhouse
Andre Bishop: Producing Artistic Director

The Royale
(The Royale Web Page)
By Marco Ramirez

McKinley Belcher III, Khris Davis, Montego Glover
John Lavelle, Clarke Peters

Directed by Rachel Chavkin

Sets: Nick Vaughan
Costumes: Dede M. Ayite
Lighting: Austin R. Smith
Sound: Matt Hubbs
Stage Manager: Karyn Meek
Casting: Daniel Swee
Exec. Dir., Development & Planning: Hattie K. Jutagir
Director of Marketing: Linda Mason Ross
General Press Agent: Philip Rinaldi
General Manager: Jessica Niebanck
Production Manager: Paul Smithyman

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
April 9, 2016 Matinee

Not a sports specialist, and certainly not a boxing aficionado, I was not sure if Marco Ramirez’ The Royale at the Mitzi Newhouse would grab my interest. Yet, unexpectedly, I found it one of the best Off-Broadway plays of the season. Jay Jackson, a fictionalized name for the early 20th century boxing great, Jack Johnson, the first black World Heavyweight Boxing Champion, is performed by Khris Davis, in a stunning tour de force on this intimate stage. His trainer, Wynton (Clarke Peters), shares the history of the first payments to fight, in poignant, spotlighted reflections. Jackson’s manager, Max (John Lavelle), when he’s not verbally sparring with Jackson about dates and logistics, morphs into boxing fans, instigators, members of a heaving press corps, and sports radio newscasters. Fish (McKinley Belcher III) is a boxing champ wannabe, who decidedly loses his early scene-boxing battle, but Jackson and team recruit Fish for sparring practice, and he becomes a winner to his hero. The fifth and final character, Nina (a lovely Montego Glover, recently seen on Broadway in Memphis, It Shoulda Been You, and Les Miserables, is Jackson’s finely dressed sister, in a minor role. Ms. Glover serves as a late-play sparring partner of repartee, revealing Jackson’s watershed, childhood and teen moments that have shaped his determination and drive.

In Mr. Ramirez’ play and under Rachel Chavkin’s superb direction, the boxing ring within a stage is a rough, raised platform, with tight ropes along the sides. Jackson’s matches, other than that with Fish, leave the opponent and blows to the imagination, as the onstage characters lift a beam or their shoes and stamp hard on the stage, yelling “Aah”. In the first, uneven match with Fish, we see punches thrown, but only audibly landing. While in sparring practice, Jackson, Wynton, and Max hatch the plan for the World Heavyweight match with the current, retired champion, the white James J. Jeffries. Jackson gets Max to arrange radio interviews and press conferences, as well as giant advertisements everywhere, as he sees this pivotal moment in African-American history for a black World Heavyweight Champion. Nina’s arrival occurs when threats to Jackson are now spreading to threats to his family and beyond. The crowds at this Fight of the Century will be bloodthirsty, and Nina is distressed, but luminously calm. She tries to win over her brother with nurturing advice, but to no avail.

As Wynton, Mr. Peters is riveting, as one senses his astonishment at having a unique role in this showcased moment in the nation’s battle for racial equality. As Max, Mr. Lavelle is impressively versatile, assuming offstage personas with gesture and vocal nuance. Mr. Belcher imbues the yearning, courageous ambition of a youthful, black athlete in the early 1900’s. Ms. Glover, as noted, is elegant and eloquent here, as always. And, Mr. Davis carries the role of the persevering, proud, and powerful Jackson, one might assume with the actual Jack Johnson on his mind, making that 1910 Fight of the Century come alive once again, at the Mitzi Newhouse. Ms. Chavkin has directed with astute sensitivity, as each character is hewn as carefully as the beams around the ring. Nick Vaughan’s stage and practice ring, with steps and fences leading beyond, from city to town, is appropriately uncluttered and muscular. Dede M. Ayite’s costumes include traditional boxing attire and Ms. Glover’s fine straw hat and braiding-embellished dress. Austin R. Smith’s lighting keeps the boxing matches dim and tense, and Matt Hubbs’ sound allows the audience to viscerally feel the vocal thuds of blows in the ring. Kudos to Marco Ramirez, and kudos to the historical champ, Jack Johnson.

McKinley Belcher III, John Lavelle, Clarke Peters, and Khris Davis
in Lincoln Center Theater's "The Royale"
Courtesy of T. Charles Erickson

Khris Davis and Montego Glover
in Lincoln Center Theater's "The Royale"
Courtesy of T. Charles Erickson

For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at