Marco Ramirez’s striking and heart-wrenching play gets its Canadian debut in Toronto
Upon entering the always versatile Baillie Theatre, it appeared as though I was walking into a title bout. With the audience framing three sides of the stage, the stage took the form of a dusty boxing gym. As the lights dimmed, it was clear that the boxing ring set before me was about to become the scene for a battle of both nerves and fists.
Set in the Jim Crow south, racism is inevitably at the heart of this piece based on the true story of the late Jack Johnson. Johnson was the first ever African-American Heavyweight Champion after defeating Jim Jeffries, becoming an icon to many. As an audience, we instead see Jay Jackson, a spitting image of Johnson, right before his big match. As Jackson strives to further his career, he begins to realize how his success contributes to the oppression of African Americans across the U.S.
If there is one area to highlight about this piece, it is the brilliant direction and staging of the two big fights by director Guillermo Verdecchia and fight director Simon Fon. As the bell rang for the first match to begin, I was expecting a choreographed fight scene to ensue, but what actually transpired was much more enthralling. With spotlights draped over each fighter as they shuffled around the stage, Dion Johnstone, who played Jay and Christief Desir, who both played Fish never approached one another. This alternative staging increased the tension more than physical combat ever could.
Never before had I seen a show where five actors were tasked with such physically demanding roles. Each member of the five-person cast helped drive the tempo of the piece, wailing and yelling with every blow each boxer sustained. Without rhythm and tempo, this show might have lacked some of the intensity it achieved. With a spattering of claps and stomps, Jayâ€™s life seemed to be a series of moves, a flash of cameras, or a footwork combination.
Alexander Thomasâ€™ portrayal of Jayâ€™s coach and friend, Wynton was the heart of this piece for me. His very raw, predictable, almost vulgar behaviour led to witty humour, but also moments of pure intensity. About half way through the show, Thomas takes us on a journey to â€œThe Royaleâ€, an event in his child that he recalls as if it happened yesterday. His storytelling ability had many audience members in tears.
Without Michelle Ramsay’s lighting design and Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound design for this piece, the show wouldnâ€™t have been half as effective. As a juxtaposition to the fast-paced sport of boxing, the lighting was often smooth and the sound was crisp. The lighting was obviously designed around the sound and both elements were always very complementary of one another.
Without a doubt, The Royale deserves to be sold out every night as it delivers both as a hard-hitting thriller, and also as a thought-provoking drama. Through Marco Ramirez’s brilliant writing and Guillermo Verdecchia skillful direction, this piece is conveyed so beautifully.
- The Royale is playing at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts through Nov 11, 2018
- Show times are inconsistent from week to week, but run from Tuesday to Sunday most weeks with some 1:30 shows and 7:30 performances
- Tickets $36.00 to $97.00
- Tickets are available by phone at 416-866-8666, in-person at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts box office or online at Soulpepper.ca
- $25 Ringside seating available by phone or in person at the Box Office
- Soulpepper is pleased to offer live ASL interpretation for this production on Oct. 27 (1:30 PM) and Nov. 1 (7:30 PM). $20 tickets are available for Deaf community members and their invited guests. Click here for more information
- Matinee Mornings offer an engaging and interactive 90 minute workshop prior to the October 31 matinee performance
Please note: This production contains strong language, bright lights, haze and loud noises.
Photo of Sabryn Rock, Alexander Thomas, and Dion Johnstone by Cylla von Tiedemann