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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.


The Royale
Lincoln Center Theater  Spring 2021

New York's Lincoln Center Theater produced this play in 2016 and now makes its excellent archive recording available online at no charge.

Marco Ramirez's drama is a fictional account of a black prizefighter's campaign to fight the white champion for the title in the early years of the Twentieth Century.

That will remind some of actual historical events and others of Howard Sackler's The Great White Hope, which told a similar story.

The Royale also carries echoes of other boxing plays and films from Golden Boy through Rocky and beyond and like them it is ultimately not really about boxing but about the American Dream and just how achievable it is, and for whom.

The play starts indirectly, by focusing on a young African-American boxer facing his first bout,which is (perhaps improbably) with the self-proclaimed Negro Heavyweight Champion. He loses, of course, but handles himself well, and the champ hires him as a sparring partner.

Focus now shifts to the champ and his determination to get a bout with the official Champion (who is, of course, white). The fight is scheduled but it is made clear that white America hates him for even trying, and that a victory will lead to riots and murders of innocent black people.

There are only two ways this play could end, and I won't tell you which the playwright chooses, except to say that it works dramatically and effectively conveys the dramatist's vision that (to mix metaphors) the deck is stacked against the black man and he has to play with full awareness of the odds.

The title refers to an anecdote told by a grizzled veteran, of a white man's club that entertained itself by making black youths fight each other, and how he as one of the boys figured out that 'winning' would consist of making sure he got paid.

Marco Ramirez tells his story well, and director Rachel Chavkin stages it inventively and evocatively. The boxing scenes that open and close the play are done symbolically, with foot-stamping and trash-talking representing the punches, so that the fighters reel from blows that are not actually thrown.

Exciting in itself, the device takes on extra meanings when a press conference with antagonistic white reporters and a later debate with the champ's worried sister are played in the same way, equating the physical fight in the ring with the larger battles against prejudice and fear.

Khris Davis gives the fighter a powerful physical presence and the strength that comes from a single-minded determination to get what he believes is his by right, but also lets us see the growing awareness of the message of the Royale story complicating his vision.

Clarke Peters provides gravity as the veteran, McKinley Belcher III makes the boy attractive and Montego Glover has one strong scene as the concerned sister. But it is John Lavelle as the supportive white fight promoter who keeps threatening to steal scenes by doubling as an infectiously enthusiastic ring announcer.

Gerald Berkowitz


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Review of The Royale - Lincoln Center Theater 2021