“The Royale” – Arizona Theatre Company

Theater Review – October 6, 2019


Arizona Theatre Company, Center Stage, Herberger Theater Center
Phoenix, AZ

“The Royale” is about African-American heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson but the game is just the context for an important discussion of race relations in 1910.  Johnson was the first Black heavyweight champion in that biased and bigoted post Civil War time when there was a terrific price to pay for this distinction.  A powerful and moving Arizona Theatre Company production of playwright Marco Ramirez’s telling tale makes a gripping performance as the racial situation suggests that there is still a long way to go before true equality happens.

Don’t be turned off by “The Royale’s” sports theme and focus on the moving discussion of what equality means and why it is important but challenging to achieve.  This discussion makes the play particularly relevant today as this country is seemingly backtracking away from racial equality.

The play presented without intermission is dramatically open about the suffering to achieve parity by sports figures challenging discrimination.  “The Royale” opens with Johnson pushing himself to excellence as he pursues flawless fighting to garner the honor he hopes to achieve.  His initially shy sister doesn’t much comment in the early portions of the play but she bursts forth later in the play making Johnson aware of what this championship will mean to the boxer and how he must suffer to win what is rightfully his.

The tautly staged production by Michael John Garces pulsates with driving force that keeps the audience riveted to the stage wondering just what is next in Johnson’s fight to win the crown.  Superb performances make each role vibrant as each character plays an important place in Johnson’s struggle.

Most commanding is Bechir Sylvain’s Johnson whose passion to achieve what he has worked hard to gain is sincerely moving.  The actor has the fire and vital compassion necessary to convey the idealistic character.  Sylvain even has the fighting moves down in a convincing physical portrait that turns the character idealistic. You feel the ups and downs of his achievement as he succeeds in winning the title but losing respect.

Roberto Antonio Martin plays challenger Fish who buckles under Johnson’s hard fought and physically aggressive stance to eventually crush Fish.  Edwin Lee Gibson plays Johnson’s trainer, Wynton, who helps in his own reflective way to keep Johnson aiming to win. Peter Howard plays referee Max who cajoles the fighter to reach his goal.  Erica Chamblee essays Nina, the fighter’s sister, who pushes astonishingly but anchors brother to the situation’s reality and helps learn what winning will mean to her brother in the segregated and very Jim Crow South.  The boxing arena and locker room isn’t glamorous but further captures the feel of what Johnson faces.

”The Royale” is a powerful piece with valuable commentary about the African-American plight that still shows today’s shameful situation.  “The Royale” continues through October 20 at the Herberger Theater Center.  To order tickets, contact the Arizona Theatre Company box office at 602-256-6995 or order tickets online at www.arizonatheatre.org.

Grade: A