Stepping into the ring with Jack Johnson, otherwise known as the "Galveston Giant," was as much an invitation to conversation as a guarantee of a beating. He'd banter with his opponents, teasing them about their fate, before knocking them out when the chat began to bore him.
"The Great White Hope," Howard Sackler's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama starring James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander, focused on the struggles Johnson faced after becoming the first African American heavyweight champion of the world. "The Royale," Marco Ramirez's percussively staged study of the boxer, concerns itself with the difficulties Johnson encountered on his way to the title.
The play, which had its world premiere Sunday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, revolves around an iron-fisted slugger named Jay "The Sport" Jackson, a Johnson surrogate desperate for a chance to fight a white champion in a sport that was still partly segregated.
As he mixes it up with another black contender, throwing some jabs with his mouth before doling out a little "jazz" with his gloves, he dreams of a big-time bout with Bernard "The Champ" Bixby.
Jay knows that he's the best and wants to prove it by laying the retired title-holder out. But in early 20th century America, victory for a black man over a white man posed untold dangers.
Ramirez's drama surveys the racial obstructions Jay must surmount to realize his dream. It also examines the internal conflicts that threaten to subvert his mission. Angry white guys with guns menace him before his much-publicized match, but just as oppressive are the fears about what will happen to him and his loved ones after he wins.
More than the characters, it's the situation that interests the playwright. David St. Louis ("Parade" at the Mark Taper Forum, "Intimate Apparel" at the Pasadena Playhouse) solidly occupies the center of Daniel Aukin's production as Jay, but the unique qualities that defined this athlete are less important than the historical repercussions of his landmark pursuit of greatness.
This is a weakness in the script, which is a little too generalized. There's something indistinct about the characters circulating around Jay. His trainer Wynton (Robert Gossett) is as functional a presence as Max (Keith Szarabajka), a fight promoter and referee prone to putting his foot in his cluelessly racist mouth.
The most vivid interaction takes place between Jay and Fish (Desean Terry), another boxer who tests him so hard during a fight that Jay hires him as his sparring partner. Their relationship has some texture because we see it unfold in stages. This is in direct contrast to the scene between Jay and his sister Nina (Diarra Oni Kilpatrick), who shows up out of the blue to let him know about all the trouble his upcoming bout with Bixby is causing her family.
"I think 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 ones ain't as strong as you," she tells him.
The backlash she recounts is real, but her character is only an outline. Nina, however, is used to theatrically stirring effect in a subsequent scene that is one of Ramirez's fleetest maneuvers. Suffice it to say, her re-emergence clarifies the extent to which the fight inside Jay's mind might be fiercer than the highly anticipated contest with Bixby.
Aukin's production has a quicker step than the writing, which can seem leaden in places. Acting on a spare wooden set by Andrew Boyce that turns the play into a boxing ring, the five-actor ensemble contributes to the pulsating flow of Ryan Rumery's original music and sound design.
The boxing scenes are electrically choreographed (Ameenah Kaplan is credited with movement and rhythm), with actors stomping in unison when a punch is thrown. The language the combatants sling at each other hasn't the same vitality, but the action is put into sharp relief through Lap Chi Chu's prize-worthy lighting and the physical majesty of St. Louis' performance.
"The Royale" doesn't penetrate all that deeply into the story of a boxer who made history for himself, his sport and his country. But its lively manner of telling reanimates this breakthrough saga for a new generation.
Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends June 2.
Price: $20 to $50 (subject to change)
Contact: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
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