The boxing drama “The Royale” offers a different kind of battle, one that is more artful dance than brutal science. In a shadowy ring, two spotlighted boxers — Jay “The Sport” Jackson (David Murray) and Purley “Fresh Fish” Hawkins (Santino Craven) — stand parallel, facing the audience as they parry and punch, moving fluidly to a soundtrack of stomps and claps.
In short, they’re putting on a show. And it’s a tautly engaging one at Yellow Tree Theatre in Osseo, where “The Royale” opened over the weekend.
Rhythm is king in director Austene Van’s percussive production of this history-minded play by Marco Ramirez (“Orange Is the New Black,” “Sons of Anarchy”). An insistent beat underscores much of the action in this 75-minute one-act, which premiered in 2013. That musicality, and Van’s stylized choreography, help to give this show its hypnotic, transporting hold.
“The Royale” is inspired by the story of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion. Johnson was a confident athlete who brought an innovative style to the ring while knocking down notions of black inferiority with his victories.
In Ramirez’s telling, the Sport’s sense of his place in history has more to do with a desire for fame and riches than with any sense of racial uplift. Like Jackie Robinson, Barack Obama and other “firsts,” he confronts encrusted ideas around race on many fronts, from fight fans who yell slurs and threaten bodily harm, to family members who are driven by a desire to protect him.
Van uses rhythmic beats to drive the action. When the soundtrack lets up, as it does at critical junctures, you feel the ground fall out from under you and become highly attuned to what fills the silence.
Her well-paced, propulsive production benefits from strong performances.
Murray, who spent nearly two years in the Twin Cities before moving back to New York, is best known here for singing roles, in Theatre Latté Da’s “Ragtime” and Children’s Theatre’s “Cinderella.” Ripped and butter-smooth, his Sport is Muhammad Ali-like, light on his feet with attitude and lip to match.
Santino Craven also is a standout as Fish, a young country boy who is a rawer version of the Sport. Craven shows us his awe and his hunger. His father, veteran actor James Craven, plays trainer Wynton in a solid, exhortatory performance brimming with common sense and confidence.
Tamala Lacy has perhaps the trickiest role in the play, the sole female character. Nina, the Sport’s big sister, is protective but not someone to be messed with, as she challenges her brother to see new things. Charles Fraser rounds out the cast, as the white manager/promoter Max — someone who considers himself a hero for representing a black fighter, but even he says ignorant things.
This muscular, crafty cast helps to give “The Royale” its knockout punch.
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