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The Royale, now onstage at the Lantern, is inspired by the true story of boxer Jack Johnson, who won the unofficially recognized title of World Colored Heavyweight Champion in 1903 and successfully defended his title for years. This story, as loosely adapted by playwright Marco Ramirez, follows Johnson as he struggles to get a match with the current white champion, in an era when no white boxer will deign to compete with a Black one in the ring.
In early 20th-century America, Jim Crow was the law of the land, supported by the Supreme Court. It was perfectly legal for white boxers to refuse to face Johnson.
As portrayed here, Johnson (Phillip Brown) is a proud, rough-around-the-edges bear of a man, with powerful physicality and a forceful personality. He’s determined to stand up to the normalized yet virulent racism of the time. But at the same time, he faces resistance to his efforts, from his manager, his trainer, even from his family, personified onstage by his sister Nina (Morgan Charéce Hall). All of them are justifiably afraid of racist retaliation against their community should Johnson succeed in his efforts.
Director/choreographer Zuhairah McGill clearly understands the emotional stakes at play here, not only for the characters, but also for viewers who relate to Johnson’s plight. Brown’s Johnson is a powerful, charismatic hero figure intent on challenging an egregious injustice, and under McGill’s direction, the cast registers the emotional toll of living under Jim Crow.
McGill’s rhythm-heavy choreography, which represents the violence and aggression of the fight scenes, brought the excitement in the house to a fever pitch on opening night. Her direction emphasizes Johnson’s strength, determination, and righteousness. While he is aware of and troubled by his sister’s fears, he never wavers in his conviction.
Johnson knows full well that pursuing his goal sets him against those closest to him. Is he willing to pay the possible price his quest will exact? I would have liked this production to explore this bittersweet reality more deeply, but McGill de-emphasizes the consequences of Johnson’s fight with the champion, focusing instead on his heroic victory—the violence that follows is played almost as an afterthought.
The cast is top-notch, with Hall matching Brown’s onstage energy, just as strong as her brother in her efforts to protect her family. Gregory Isaac, Brian Anthony Wilson, and Kahlil A. Wyatt round out the cast with solid performances.
Will Lowry’s stage design is the essence of “less is more.” It consisted of little more than a boxing ring, in and around which all the action of the play takes place. But that’s all the show needs.
The Royale packs an emotional punch for all audiences. It paints a compelling picture of an important chapter of American history, the repression people faced living under Jim Crow, and the consequences when they challenged the unjust status quo.
What, When, Where
The Royale. By Marco Ramirez, directed by Zuhairah McGill. Through December 11, 2022, at the Lantern’s St. Stephen’s Theater, 10th and Ludlow Streets, Philadelphia. (215) 829-0395 or lanterntheater.org.
Masks are required inside the theater.
The theater and its restrooms are accessible only by stairs. This performance includes light haze and brief strobe lighting effects.
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