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A CurtainUp Review
By Charles Wright
The Great White Hope, which won the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, was a sort of historical pageant with a huge cast (60 actors in the Broadway production) and it hasn't been revived very often. Sackler's chronicle of the career-long struggle of the central character was perceived by audiences to reflect the growing civil-rights activism of the mid-1960s when the play premiered at the non-profit Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. The Royale is a less sweeping, more intimate drama of one man's courage and his shortsightedness in assailing the battlements of systematic racism.
Lincoln Center Theater has assigned Ramirez's poetic script to director, Rachel Chavkin, who understands the musicality and emphatic rhythms of his writing, and a design team that's in tune with the playwright's anti-realistic orientation. The Royale is a beautiful and beautifully-executed production that depicts an unspeakably ugly episode.
Ramirez calls The Royale a "play in six rounds." It concerns Jay (Khris Davis), the "Negro Heavyweight Champion in the strictly segregated society of 1905 U.S.A., and his quixotic, though ultimately successful, campaign to challenge the reigning Heavyweight Champion of the World. The current champ, Bixby (an off-stage character), says he has retired from the ring; but his reluctance to fight is related primarily to fear that the title will be claimed by an African-American boxer.
Before Jay can fight Bixby, he must go "rounds" with Max (John Lavelle), his promoter; Wynton (Clarke Peters), his trainer; and Nina (Montego Glover), his sister. As guides and guardians of Jay's career, Max and Wynton recognize the power (and danger) of those who are determined to confine black fighters to the periphery of the boxing world. Nina, on the other hand, is concerned about the violent forces that will menace her family, including Jay himself, if he penetrates the white, old-boy precinct of mainstream boxing.
Chavkin, the director of Dave Malloy's pop-opera Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 (Off-Off Broadway in 2013 and the upcoming Broadway production), has affinity for the operatic quality of Ramirez's writing. This aspect of her sensibility was also apparent earlier this season in Preludes, the idiosyncratic music-theater piece about Rachmaninoff which she directed — and which she also developed" with Malloy for Lincoln Center Theater's LCT3 initiative.
In addition to the actors listed above, the cast of The Royale includes McKinley Belcher III as a promising young fighter who is Jay's sparring partner and professional protege. Chavkin leads these five superb performers through 90 minutes of intense work that utilizes a wide range of theatrical skills — intricate vocal variation, mime and other complex movement (much of it close to balletic), precise comic timing, and evocation of heightened emotion (heightened, yes, but steering clear of anything maudlin).
Nick Vaughan's scenic design is as highly stylized as Ramirez's play; and Vaughan works in perfect sync with lighting designer Austin R. Smith and sound designer Matt Hubbs. The extreme stylization of text and design may interfere with the emotional involvement of some playgoers. (Don't expect realistic fight scenes or any of the epic trappings of the stage or screen versions of The Great White Hope.) But when The Royale reaches its horrifying conclusion, all that's non-naturalistic about the creative team's approach culminates in a sense of magnitude and of the mythic, and Ramirez's compact drama is transformed from a tale about a bygone era to a parable for all time.