Please don’t skip seeing the Rep Studio’s The Royale thinking it’s just another sports story. Yes, it’s about a boxer on his way to the top. But it’s beyond that.
It does harken back to Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion. But it doesn’t feel like a rewrite of Great White Hope. Jay “Sport” Jackson (Akron Lanier Watson) is the contender, full of self-confidence but only occasionally arrogant. We hear him thinking as he boxes, first in a match against a rookie named Fish (Bernard Gilbert).
But it’s life outside the actual boxing that pulls us along. Why does he send his trainer (Samuel Ray Gates) out to bring Fish back after the match? How complex is his relationship with his business manager (Lance Baker)? Will the now-retired white world champion deign to come out of retirement to fight an African-American? And why does his sister Nina (Bria Walker) show up unexpectedly?
Added to those questions is the staging of the show, with a surprisingly steady pace for the sports theme, a fine semi-impressionistic set and an added auditory element with rhythm work using their bodies as percussion instruments from the cast, including the two ensemble members (Malik Shakoor and Jarris Williams).
From the moment when the show opens with Baker, who doubles as a ring announcer, intoning at the top of his lungs a wonderful traditional near-incantation of an introduction of the fighters, the audience is pulled in. Baker, in both roles, is excellent, but in particular it’s Watson that it’s hard to take one’s eyes off. He’s in near-constant motion, a magnet of intensity and mostly-suppressed emotion. Gilbert’s Fish is engaging, a portrayal which hints at a good backstory for Fish, too, were we not in a 90-minute time frame. Nina, in Bria Walker’s creation, is as strong as her brother the fighter, and nails more in a bit of magical realism late in the play.
That fine pacing for Marco Ramirez’ script is from director Stuart Carden. The set and the smart but subtle lighting come courtesy of Brian Sidney Bembridge, and the body percussion and other movement are from Stephanie Paul, a newcomer to the Rep.
Not your usual sports drama, but intriguing on many levels.
through March 26
Studio Theatre at the Rep
Repertory Theatre St. Louis
Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts
130 Edgar Rd., Webster Groves