As The Royale drew to its close tonight I sat in wonder as our central character, the black boxer Jay ‘The Sport’ Jackson, entered the ring against the world champion, except that the person facing him was his sister, who in herself represented the black population of America in 1905 when the play is set. As the fight was played out in superb chorography, the pair entered conversation about what the fight meant, not just to Jackson himself, but more importantly, the whole of the black population of America.
It was a scene that left me in wonder as to how someone could come up with such an idea; I can get my head around a character to represent more than one person (the black population) and an idea or thought (racial tensions), after all this is what the chorus line in every Greek tragedy is about, but to then take that concept and play it out in the guise of a boxing match is just utter genius, tinged with a stroke of madness and explains why this play has had such great reviews and is now sold out for the remainder of its run.
It’s very loosely based on the life of a real boxer, Jack Johnson rather than Jay Johnson. Jack Johnson did fight for the world heavyweight crown in 1905, a fight that did cause massive controversy at the time because he was black. Major liberties are taken with his story, but that is because the play isn’t really about him, but about the racial tensions of the times.
While the play closes with the boxing match ending, it also closes with the knowledge that more fighting is beginning in the form of the riots and tensions that occurred for real when Johnson won the fight, outrage that a black man could be the heavyweight champion and beat the white man, and that the black population celebrated. It’s a powerful end, more so because of the imagery of the sister as the opponent rather than the actual boxer.
The staging is as simple as it can get. The centre stage, surrounded on all four sides by banks of seating, is just a wooden square that shakes as the actors move around, and the only items used are two wooden stalls. And yet it doesn’t matter, it is a boxing ring from the moment the actors set foot on it and start the opening scenes, and it is the changing rooms of the boxing hall when they are talking pre-fight, it doesn’t need lots of props, just the right words and a little imagination, something that this play has plenty of.
The fights are played out in an imaginative way as well, at times the opponents aren’t even close, or looking at each other. At one point Jackson is addressing the audience with his thoughts, and as he swings his fists, his opponent folds over as if hit. It might sound stupid, but it works, the power of the words and the visual effect making the fact no punch really landed so unimportant.
This was a play that left me stunned on so many levels; I was in awe of not just the brilliance of the acting, the writing and the actors, but it also left me wanting to know more about the real boxer, and the history behind him and the real fight. Something that I did as soon as I was home, reading up on the real boxer and the issues around the troubles that the fight caused.
And it was a play I wanted to talk about, the first thing I did on leaving was text a friend with the less than subtle message “fucking hell that was powerful”, maybe not my most eloquent use of words, but I feel expressed how I felt in that moment.