A knock-out production of The Royale at the Citadel, a review

Austin Eckert in The Royale, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

It’s got a powerful, bruising story to tell, lifted from early 20th century history, where boxing, celebrity and racial hatred in America deliver a maximum sucker punch. 

But it’s the theatrical right hook on which that story gets told that makes Marco Ramirez’s The Royale a knockout, as you’ll see in the terrific production directed by André Sills at the Citadel.

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It’s a drama set in the 1905 boxing circuit, amongst fighters, trainers, promoters. And not one real physical blow lands, person to person, though we feel the reverb and flinch every time. A lighted boxing ring floats in a shadowy dark world, designed by Whittyn Jason and lighted with the tones of a previous century by Steve Lucas. In foot stomps, rhythmic claps, and choreographed moves and reactions (movement director Shakeil Rollock), an ingeniously stylized conjuring of those punches, the pugilist’s ballet as a commentator has said, the story of Jay ‘The Sport’ Jackson comes to life. 

Or maybe the chamber we’re in is the mind of the gifted, cocky Black boxer, an aspirationally natty dresser (costumes by Rachel Forbes) who dreams of being the heavyweight champion of the world in 1905.  The atmospheric sound design created by Dave Clarke suggests that, with its echoing reverb. And so does the memory-scape way characters appear and disappear from darkness.  

Played in Sills’ production by Austin Eckert in a performance of charisma, nervy bravado, and reserves of angst, Jay ‘The Sport’ Jackson is clearly a fictional allusion to an historical celeb. Jack Johnson, the first Black heavyweight world champion, got the title by luring a legendary white title-holder out of retirement for “the fight of the century” in 1910. For that groundbreaking victory and step forward, as history tells us, a terrible price was paid. In a segregated racist America it unleashed a horrifying backlash of violence across the country.

Mohamed Ahmed and Troy O’Donnell in The Royale, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

The Royale populates a whole world ingeniously with five characters, acted with  commitment and nuance by Sills’ cast. It opens with a match: Jay Jackson, the rising star of Black boxing (“toes like Jack Nimble, fists like John Henry”) vs. a young challenger, in his first pro fight. As Fish, who lands a job as Jay’s sparring partner afterward, Mohamed Ahmed captures a wary kind of grace and natural dignity, in a fine performance. 

Troy O’Donnell is vivid as Max, the motor-mouth promoter (boxing’s “only interracial promoter!” he claims) and referee, an exuberant, self-justifying and more than slightly sleazy hawker of hype. Max claims his progressive bona fides, but his run-of-the-mill racist streak gets regularly outed in throwaways about the status quo. “It ain’t like he’s a bigot,” Max declares of Bixby the white champ with whom Jay is hot to land a title bout. “His driver’s a Negro.” Or, when push comes to shove: “How would you like it if I asked Jay to get in the ring with a goddam grizzly bear?”

Be patient, he keeps reminding Jay. How many ‘coloureds’ ever get their picture on page five of the tabloids. “Why not the front page?” demands Jay.  

Alexander Thomas and Austin Eckert in The Royale, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

Jay’s trainer Wynton, played with compelling authenticity, weight, and  knowing worldliness by Alexander Thomas, sees right through all the persiflage. It’s his story of being a youthful fighter, scrabbling blind-folded for coins thrown by white standers-by, that gives The Royale its title. In the theatrical terms of the play, Wynton’s coaching instructions, blow by blow, apply both to moves in the ring and at press conferences, a fight that in the end is harder to win. “Whatever you choose to do, you do it alone.” 

It’s when Jay’s sister Nina arrives in his mind from outside the ring, with warnings about the dangerous backlash that will happen if he wins and fells a white cultural icon, that real tension is unleashed. Jameela McNeil really bites into the role in a memorable way as she accuses him of being “so caught up in playing David to Goliath, in being the one fish swimming upstream….” that he’s forgotten the danger to his family, his race. In an audacious theatrical gambit, she has a double role that in itself is a gut-puncher.

For a Black hero, it’s a deck that’s stacked, a fight that’s fixed, in a ring that’s circumscribed. And the price of moving history even a little bit forward is scary. Is winning ever more than a draw? This is an evening in the theatre that leaves you off-centre, on your wrong foot. Don’t miss it. 


The Royale

Theatre: Citadel

Written by: Marco Ramirez

Directed by: André Sills

Starring: Austin Eckert, Mohamed Ahmed, Jameela McNeil, Troy O’Donnell, Alexander Thomas

Running: through Feb. 19

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com   

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