In 1969, a play called “The Great White Hope” won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the Tony Award and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for best play. Written by Howard Sackler, it starred James Earl Jones as Jack Johnson, the “Galveston Giant,” who became the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion of the world.
Johnson held that title from 1908 to 1915, and during all those years in Jim Crow America the boxing world looked for a “great white hope” to take the title away from him.
Now, a new play called “The Royale,” a semibiographical tale of Johnson’s fight for recognition and the toll it takes on his loved ones, is stomping the stage in its world premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, Calif.
Written by award-winning playwright Marco Ramirez, “The Royale” is set “sometime between 1900 and 1920” on a stage that is a wooden ring without ropes. David St. Louis, a giant of a man, plays Jay Jackson, a prominent boxer in the “Negro League” who is eager to take on the reigning white champion — an outrageous suggestion at the time. Jackson is modeled after Johnson.
James J. Jeffries, the real-life world champion in Johnson’s era, was persuaded to come out of retirement with an outrageous suggestion of his own. He would fight the black boxer for 90 percent of the take. And Johnson agreed.
In this production, the staging is the thing. St. Louis fights with grace, never laying a hand on his preliminary opponent (Desean Terry), but successfully miming knocking him out, dancing and pouncing while Terry twists and falls. The punches are simulated by a chorus that claps and stomps rhythmically while St. Louis smashes his foot on the floor. It’s a very effective and engaging way to stage a fight.
As news of the upcoming championship fight circulates, many in the beleaguered African-America community betray their alarm by warning the would-be champ that “there will be riots” if he wins. They fear that his life will be forfeited if he goes ahead with the fight.
Jackson remains adamant, however, and in several dignified speeches explains what the championship means to him. Another impassioned speech is given by Robert Gossett, who plays Jackson’s trainer, but in this case Gossett’s diction is so poor that the speech remains unintelligible.
Jackson’s manager, Max (Keith Szarabajka), doubles as the fight announcer and does a serviceable job, but Diarra Oni Kilpatrick, the only woman in the ensemble, is identified as Nina, but not explained. She claps and stomps on cue, but only has one rather superfluous speech; as his sister, she tries to convince Jackson not to engage in the fight for fear he will be killed.
Daniel Aukin has directed this production as well as can be expected for a play that is uneven at best and tedious at times. The staging of the fights by Ameenah Kaplan, the costume designs by Andrew Boyce, and the original music and sound design by Ryan Rumery are, unfortunately, the most successful elements of the play.
“The Royale” will run Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. through June 2 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City, Calif. Call (213) 628-2772 for tickets.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.