Sometimes the most powerful fights are the ones we have in our own minds — a fact vividly depicted on stage in “The Royale,” a riveting play by Marco Ramirez (“Daredevil,” “Orange is the New Black”), getting a hell of a workout Off Broadway at Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. The main character of this fast and furious work is based loosely on the life of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion (and also the protagonist of Howard Sackler’s sprawling 1968 play “The Great White Hope”). But this is a spare and intimate story of internal struggles, propelled by the dynamic, imaginative direction of Rachel Chavkin (“Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812”) and performed by a terrific quintet of actors, led by a charismatic Khris Davis as the great black hope.
The opening scene signals the taut, tense story ahead. Within Nick Vaughan’s wooden environmental set centering on a boxing ring — and given dramatic punch by Austin R. Smith’s lighting — two boxers duel. One is Jay (Davis), a prodigious fighter who toys with his opponents with verbal head games, supreme confidence and crushing right hooks. The other is Fish (McKinley Belcher III, very good), a solid contender who’s undone by the skills and strategies of his dazzling opponent.
This first fight is theatrically staged without a blow landing on anyone’s body, but instead presented with startling percussive claps and stomps that are just as devastating as a punch to the gut. It’s clear that it’s what’s going on inside the opponents’ psyches that is as compelling and revealing as their skills in boxing.
After that gripping opener, the narrative kicks in, with the pressure on Jay’s promoter Max (John Lavelle, giving considerable depth to a stereotype) to get the undefeated white champ, James J. Jeffries, out of retirement to fight this formidable upstart from the world of “colored” boxing matches. Keeping Jay in focus is his knowing trainer, Wynton (Clarke Peters, bringing a depth of experience to the role), who understands what’s at stake perhaps better than anyone, especially when he tells the shattering personal story that gives the play its title.
With a demeaning deal in place, this “Fight of the Century” is set and takes on epic racial significance as an inevitable symbolic duel — and a pivotal advancement in the eyes of African-Americans at the turn of the last century, just a generation after the end of the Civil War. As Max points out, “this country’s been waiting for this fight, whether they like it or not.”
But a triumph would come at a price that the young fighter is oblivious to, with his simple focus of moving the fight coverage from “page five to page one.” He becomes aware of the real stakes first with threats to his life, then to others — made all the more vivid with the late-in-play arrival of Jay’s sister Nina (Tony winner Montego Glover, aglow with fierce dignity and resolve), who shakes the foundation of the athlete’s drive to be champ.
Ramirez depicts his fictional fighter — liberated of Johnson’s historic biography — with quietness as well as bravado as Jay grapples with the profound meaning of what his actions mean to others, and to himself. It’s a struggle made all the more dramatic by a coup de theatre that has the boxer realizing this battle is as personal as it gets.