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My last post described Kristoffer Diaz’s 2010 play The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity as one of the smartest and most insightful plays about race in the US that I’d seen. Marco Ramirez’s 2013 play The Royale – which, perhaps not coincidentally, also sets its action among professional fighters – earns the same distinction. Readers, you know I’m not in the business of ranking, so don’t even ask; there’s plenty of room in the category, and in our current political climate, plays like these, that shine a light on the stubborn persistence of racism and xenophobia, are as urgently essential as ever.

The Royale is an exquisitely crafted gem of a play that is set in the first decade of the 20th century and takes as its subject the strivings of an African-American boxer, Jay “The Sport” Jackson, to claim the title of heavyweight champion from its current (white) defender. He’s a skilled and experienced fighter who is almost guaranteed to win the fight, and his audacity (yes, I choose that word quite pointedly) in challenging the champion threatens to unleash a backlash of violent white retaliation against black people across the country.

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L to R: Bernard Gilbert (Fish), Tim Edward Rhoze (Wynton), Desean Kevin Terry (Jay) and Andrew William Smith (Max). Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre

The threat of such violence and retribution starts to hang heavy on Jackson when his sister Nina comes to beg him to call off the fight, out of fear for her own safety and that of her family and community. At this point we’re placed squarely in the midst of the anguish that must have beset all of the African-American “firsts” who broke racial barriers and risked kindling uncertain repercussions. For Jackson, moreover, the struggle is deeply personal; his ambition to be a highly visible symbol and role model of black success is spurred by memories of his sister disfiguring herself in an attempt to conform to standards of white beauty.

What makes this play most disquieting is the way it captures the social, psychological, and physical toll taken by the near-constant background simmering of white resentment, a resentment that seems to perpetually bubble up and boil over in response to black achievement. I doubt I need to connect the dots any further to persuade you of the play’s near-breathtaking timeliness to our present moment, but if you’re feeling masochistic and need convincing, just visit any news story about the new administration, and you’ll find the ugly evidence of contemporary white rage and resentment over the Obama presidency plastered all over the comments section (you might want to pour yourself a stiff drink first).

Back to the play. Director Stuart Carden’s staging is meticulous and dynamic, and he brings a vivid theatricality to the action through sound, movement, and lighting. Instead of choreographing conventional fight scenes, Carden has the actors face front, in stark rectangles of light; when one character strikes, the other reacts to the invisible blow with precise and near-magical timing. A steady “score” of body percussion and vocalization from other members of the ensemble punctuates the action and gives it a musical drive and urgency. It also has the dual effect of filling in the aural landscape without the need of piped-in crowd sounds and of laying down a rhythm track that mimics the rhythms of a boxing match. By heightening the artifice and theatricality of the boxing matches, Carden shifts our focus away from the potential violence of the fight and toward the characters’ thoughts, feelings, anxieties, and ambitions, expressed as taunts to each other and through their own self-patter and self-encouragement.

Brian Sidney Bembridge’s scenic and lighting design is impressively spare and minimalist – he’s transformed the mainstage space at City Theatre into a thrust arena, with audience on three sides of a square boxing platform and a balcony along the upstage wall that Carden uses to good effect in several moments of the play. Scene transitions are effected smoothly by ensemble members Siddiq Saunderson and Tony II Lorich, who raise and lower a chandelier and punching bag by way of ropes and pulleys to swiftly and iconically transform the arena into a luxe hotel room or dingy gym (these two also join the rest of the ensemble in providing percussive movement/sound effects from the sidelines). K. J. Gilmer’s period costumes are acutely observed, and the attention to detail in the clothing is superb.

The ensemble is excellent, with several performers new to Pittsburgh. Desean Kevin Terry brings depth and subtlety to his performance as the cocky and self-confident Jay, and his anguish as he battles his conscience (in the form of his sister, played powerfully by Bria Walker) is palpable. I only wish that those of us seated in the stage left audience bank saw less of his back, as his face is beautifully expressive. Bernard Gilbert, as Jay’s young protégé, Fish, Tim Edward Rhoze, as his trainer Wynton, and Andrew William Smith, as the white promoter Max also deliver strong and firmly grounded performances, building a believable emotional world within the heightened universe of the text and staging.

The Royale is one of those plays that lingers: its combination of confident theatricality and brutally honest emotion is fresh and bracing, and the warning it brings from history of the dangers we face when a subset of white people begin to feel aggrieved is chillingly disconcerting.

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