In our racially damaged culture, it doesn’t feel right to criticize Marco Ramirez’s The Royale, especially in light of the Aurora Theatre’s well acted, designed, and directed Bay Area premiere.
After all, you couldn’t hope or imagine for a more earnest and caring depiction of the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world (1907–1915), Jack Johnson. But the play is also an inadvertent demonstration of the limits of earnestness and care as an aesthetic, especially when dealing with extraordinary people.
And Johnson was extraordinary. A subtle, tactical, and powerful boxer; a personality born for the international stage and fame; seemingly oblivious and unafraid of Jim Crow America, here is a man whose presence and accomplishments were so electric that Congress created a law making it illegal to transport boxing films across state lines — apparently they felt that watching his matches would demoralize white people.
So when The Royale opens with a boxing match, you think, okay, let’s get this fight going. Fights are outrageous; Johnson was outrageous; America was sickeningly outrageous; fights on stage depicting early 20th century boxing matches are outrageous. I was ready for violence, a nice theatrical conflagration brimming over with revolutionary zeal.
Instead, Ramirez (who rechristened Johnson “Jay Jackson” in the play, for no clear dramatic reason) gives us an abstraction of a fight, without any of the benefits of the abstract. The actors face the audience and stomp on the stage to indicate the throwing of punches. We aren’t reflecting on the nature of boxing, or how we conceive of a fight, or the possibility of fracturing time and space to enter Jackson’s soul. It’s just a fancy way of setting up a rather clichéd set of dramatic terms.
Jackson taunts his opponent Fish, a fellow African-American boxer who will later become his sparring partner; Jackson’s trainer Wynton yells instructions and encouragement from his corner (“keep those hands up, Jay!”), and the announcer announces exactly what we’re seeing. It all has the feel of a fifth-rate television movie gussied up as Oscar bait.
In a May 2016 interview with the Miami Herald, Ramirez was clear about his worries and intentions in writing about Johnson. “I was really sensitive knowing how important the story was in African-American history,” he said. “I wanted to make sure of… not so much getting the story of his life right but getting the adversity he faced right.”
He should’ve stuck with the story. In chasing adversity, Ramirez’s loses much of the man, his life, and the feel of early 20th century America. Johnson/Jackson becomes the slave of historical circumstance that he never was. Individual scenes become mere demonstrations of a sentimental take on racism and suffering. It feels tired, preordained, portentous, and makes for some curious writing.
At one point, for example, Jackson and his manager Max argue about his security as if they’re having the discussion for the first time — “Men showin’ up — Men with pistols — You tellin’ me it’s happened before?” But it’s a ludicrous dramatic conceit that Johnson/Jackson would have been taken aback by the possibility of white violence in 1907. Hell, it wouldn’t be surprising in 2017.
To get his shot at the world championship, Johnson dogged then-champion Tommy Burns all over the world for two years, taunting him in the press until Burns had no choice but to fight. By 1912, when Johnson fought James Jefferies, the returning undefeated champion and great white hope Jack London yearned for, he was probably the most famous African American in the world, and certainly the most notorious.
This was a man finely attuned to the sensibilities of his age, who manipulated them to his own ambitions. To present him as a shocked naif is to reduce and strip him of what he obviously possessed — great imagination.
But in order to see and feel that imagination, we have to believe that it’s operating in a plausibly real world and not one rigged for dramatic effect. At one point, it seems that Fish has betrayed Jackson — he hasn’t — and you realize that Ramirez just wanted to ramp up the tension in the play. As if a life like that needed more drama.
In a similar fashion, Jackson’s sister Nina visits him before his title fight with Champ Bixby (a historically and dramatically unconvincing conflation of Burns and Jefferies) to debate, argue, and taunt him into not fighting for fear of the violence that will follow if he wins. She’s presented as a guardian of moral rectitude, the ethical center to Jackson’s loose ways — “You’re so caught up in playing David to Goliath, in being the one fish swimming upstream, I think you up and forgot about the rest of us.”
The conflict, though, is purely ceremonial. We know that nothing will stop this fight, and that Nina’s moral and ethical qualms are not only unpersuasive, but also empty. If race is the battleground that the play’s symbolic logic rests, then the idea of not fighting is cowardly, foolish, and a joke to even consider. Without the Johnson/Jacksons of the world, there is no joy, hope, or any possibility of change. Everything becomes adversity.
The desire to honor is a dangerous and conservative aesthetic. It panders and plays to the romantic and sentimental in all of us. With great care and earnestness, Ramirez has turned a free-thinking visionary into a psychologically trapped dupe. That takes work.
I can’t think of a more effective dismantling of vision and imagination than The Royale. It’s tailor-made for our times, where concern so often pushes thought and action to the wings.
‘The Royale’ runs through Sunday, Dec. 3, at the Aurora Theatre. For tickets and information, click here.