By Darlene Donloe
Jack Johnson, known as the ‘Galveston Giant,’ was the first black heavyweight champion of the world.
How he achieved it, what it took to get there and the aftermath of his accomplishment is somewhat addressed in The Royale, a loosely-based drama about the behind the scenes machinations that guided Johnson to the top. The play recently had its world premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.
In the show the character incarnating Johnson is Jay ‘The Sport’ Jackson, who yearns for the chance to fight a white champion named Bernard "The Champ" Bixby – even though he knows the country is not quite ready to see a black man knock out a white man. He would be in danger as would his family, friends, associates and anyone else who happened to walk around in black skin. Even before the championship fight angry whites were showing up at his fights with guns to threaten, intimidate and throw him off game. Although he grappled with his decision to move forward, it was clearly a move Jackson was willing to make.
David St. Louis ("Parade" at the Mark Taper Forum, "Intimate Apparel" at the Pasadena Playhouse), a former boxer himself, steps into the ring as Jackson. His impressive physique and booming voice make for a fearsome and convincing champ.Also telling the story are his manager, Wynton (Robert Gossett), his opponent-turned sparring partner, Fish (Desean Terry), a promoter, Max (Keith Szarabajka) and his sister, Nina (Diarra Oni Kilpatrick). All were instrumental in one way or another in shaping Johnson’s journey to the championship.
One of the opening scenes has Johnson in a bout with an opponent he deems unworthy. He taunts the fighter before, of course, knocking him out and sending him on his way. In fact, most of his fights went that way. What Jackson wants, what’s been elusive, is the opportunity to fight for the championship.
Director Daniel Aukin has assembled a first rate cast to complement an impressive boxing ring-like staging. The five actors use a stirring syncopated technique that not only mirrors a crowd affect, but also represents various punches.
All of the elements including costume, lights, choreography, acting and direction come together to shape a pleasing theatrical experience.
The story is engaging, however, one gets the feeling the playwright could have gone deeper in the narrative. The story only skims the surface.
Still, The Royale, is worth the price of admission.
The Royale, directed by Daniel Aukin and written by Marco Ramirez, stars David St. Louis, Keith Szarabajka, Robert Gosset, Diarra Oni Kilpatrick and Desean Terry.
The Royale, Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; 8 p.m. Tues.-Fri., 2 and 8 p.m. Sat., 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sun. Ends June 2; $20 to $50 (subject to change); (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
On the DONLOE SCALE: D (don’t bother), O (oh, no), N (needs work), L (likeable) O (more than OK) and E (excellent), The Royale gets an E (excellent).