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Courtesy of the Kitchen Theatre Co.

April 7, 2019

‘The Royale’s’ Bold Exploration of Jim Crow America

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The Royale, a play written by Marco Ramirez and directed by Pirronne Yousefzadeh, focuses on Jack Johnson and his struggle with being the first African American heavyweight champion during the tumultuous Jim Crow era. However, for this play Ramirez took the creative decision to give Johnson the moniker “Jay ‘The Sport’ Jackson.”

Put on by the Kitchen Theatre Company, The Royale was a must see. From start to finish, none of the show disappointed. As soon as you enter the black box theatre you are greeted with a bold hardwood stage that has a large punching bag hanging towards the back, resembling, to me, a stage that an African-American would commonly be lynched on for the sake of white ambition. Once in my seat, I knew for the next 70 minutes (with no intermission) I was going to be in an emotional boxing ring.

The theatre is intimate and the lighting — organized by Seth Reiser, scene and lighting designer — is perfect to emphasize the inseparability between the cast and its audience. To add dramatic emphasis at points throughout the play, the glistening of the actors’ sweat and tears is visible. Then, in a flash, the stage would transition to blackout.

The acting is in-your-face, stirring and genuine. Yet with only five cast members —  Jamal James as Jay, Sean Meehan as Max, Lisa Tharps as Nina, Dazmann Still as Fish, Alexander Thomas as Wynton — four out of the five being black and only one woman, I was unsure how they were going to navigate through all the complexities of being black in America. However, I was pleasantly surprised to watch the various dynamics seamlessly unfold before my eyes. From the relationship between Jay and Nina to Wynton’s mentorship of Jay, each connection feels real and addresses all kinds of nuances that made me mock all the major production studios who spend millions of dollars to capture the same chord that The Royale was able to with a far smaller budget. There were distinct times when Jay was looking directly into my eyes (me holding my breath not daring to move from his glance) as he poured his deep emotions out to me, asking if he should continue to play the role of the martyr when he knows it’s not just himself in danger but the people who he wants to protect. This was truly a surreal experience I won’t forget.

Not only is the conviction behind the acting enough reason to praise The Royale, but also the genius of the director, Yousefzadeh, and the movement coordinator, Rocio Mendez, is a feat in itself. Yousefzadeh and Mendez instruct the actors to be rhythmic, having them clap or drum when transitioning speakers. This elicits the call-and-response musical technique to promote attentiveness from the audience and add further emphasis to certain aspects of the play. The movement during the boxing matches is fluid and purposeful. In fact, each movement in some way was perfectly accented so that emotions words could not describe were perfectly visible.

If you have the chance to catch The Royale I highly recommend you purchase your ticket quick because they sell. It’s debut weekend sold out and I’m expecting nothing less for the second weekend – you will be left speechless.

 

Jeremiah LaCon is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at jcl345@cornell.edu.