Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Thrilling Drama at the Rep Explores Big Questions in the Ring

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Thrilling Drama at the Rep Explores Big Questions in the Ring

Article excerpt

Plays don't open like this.

So from the moment that six men take the stage, stamping their feet, clapping their hands and slapping their bodies to create an all-human percussion section, we know that we're in for something different.

And so we are. "The Royale," the last production in this season's Studio Theatre series at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, pushes theater arts to the limit. It's reasoned yet physical, powerfully written yet committed to wordless expression.

And "The Royale" demands both parts the dialogue and the staging, the intellectual and the physical to take its incisive look at the intersection of masculinity and race in American culture. It's a complex, thrilling work.

Written by Marco Ramirez and directed by Stuart Carden, "The Royale" is inspired by the real life of Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion. (Johnson also inspired Howard Sackler's 1967 drama "The Great White Hope.")

Akron Lanier Watson gives a stellar performance as Jay "The Sport" Jackson, a boxer of extraordinary power and skill. He is, in fact, the Negro heavyweight champion.

But Jackson knows he should be the heavyweight champion, period. In the early 20th century, however, the "real" (i.e., white) heavyweight champion has little reason to step into the ring with him.

Setting his play in a milieu that presents masculinity in the bluntest terms, Ramirez raises key questions: Is a man merely an animal? How differently do we see black men and white men? Is a powerful black man a hero or a danger to other black people?

And how is one individual supposed to weigh his personal ambitions against the greater good if he even knows what that would be?

Thoughtful performances come from Lance Baker as a fight promoter, Bernard Gilbert as a trainer, Samuel Ray Gates as a young boxer and Bria Walker as a woman with insight as well as common sense. …

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