The cast of The Royale delivers one of the most powerful performances I have ever seen by an ensemble cast.
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis nears the end of its 2016-2017 season with the emotional heavyweight production The Royale. St. Louis has a rich history both in boxing and theatre, and the marriage of the two on the intimate Studio Theatre stage is a complete knockout. (OK, enough with the boxing references, I promise.)
Set in the early 1900s, the story opens with Jay “The Sport” Jackson (Akron Lanier Watson) and Fish (Bernard Gilbert) “dueling” in the boxing ring. Jackson is clearly the crowd favorite as he flirts with the audience and taunts his opponent. In the end, despite Fish’s impressive skills, Jackson is victorious. He then compels his promoter Max (Lance Baker) for a chance to fight for the title of heavyweight champion against Bernard Bixby. Max knows how hard of a sell this will be seeing how Bixby might not want to be the first caucasian boxer to battle with a negro boxer. (Note the time setting for this play.)
Jackson takes Fish on as his sparring partner in hopes that he will help him raise him game if Bixby agrees to the bout—which he ultimately does with the stipulation of some pricey requirements.
But the true fight is never about what happens in the ring. Jackson has to battle with his own ego, his promoter’s sublimated racism, his manager Wynton (Samuel Ray Gates) and his over-protective sheltering, and his sister, Nina (Bria Walker), who shows up and asks him to throw the biggest fight of his life. The last bit may throw you for a loop, but Nina knows when Jay wins, he and his people really lose. She knows white folk back in that time won’t take losing lightly. When Jay finds out that some white people have already shown up to his early bouts brandishing guns, he is forced to make a decision. Will he take a fall in order to protect his people or will he take a shot at having his name in the history books? Without telling you how it turns out, no life is left untouched by the outcome.
The cast of The Royale delivers one of the most powerful performances I have ever seen by an ensemble cast. Watson, as Jay, was magnetizing. His performance had the swagger, machismo, and intensity of a prize fighter. Every time he flashed his million dollar smile, I audibly heard the ladies (and some men) in the audience swoon. He was charming, effective, and emotionally real in each of his scenes. Flawless in every aspect, his was a type of performance that makes people come back to see the show more than once.
Walker’s performance as Nina was mind-blowing. The chemistry between Walker and Watson was impeccable. When she walked onto the set, her demeanor was so dominant, it caused Watson’s body language to change from the alpha male chest thumping to the respectful sibling. It seemed as if she was reciting poetry with each line she delivered. Both her physicality and vocal delivery was formidable as she gave one of the most emotionally authentic performances I have seen in some time.
The rest of the cast all turned in top notch performances as well. Baker, as Max, was everything I needed him to be as a promoter. An opportunist, cunning, and a bit slimy, Baker’s Max was always looking for his best angle in the game regardless of how anyone else fared. Gates, as Wynton, and Gilbert, as Fish, both gave emotionally compelling performances helping round out this impressive cast.
Director Stuart Carden delivered something fresh and new to the St. Louis theatrical scene. From start to finish, this production of The Royale was one of the edgiest shows I have seen in some time. Carden’s crew created a world which I never wanted to leave. The story moved along at a quick pace and the visuals of the show show were unforgettably stunning.
Movement and body percussionist Stephanie Paul, did an outstanding job in giving this non-musical show a musical feel. The way the fights were staged, the way the ensemble cast created rhythms though stomping and clapping, gave the production a gritty but ethereal feel.
Scenic and lighting designer Brian Sidney Bembridge also did an exemplary job in creating a surround sound type of feel. Similar to the set design of The Rep’s Mothers and Sons, the audience was introduced to the set from the moment they stepped into the theatre. I am not sure how he created the ambiance of a boxing ring in the intimate theater, but you could almost smell the sweat and cigars you would encounter at a real boxing match.
Sound designer Mikhail Fiksel also deserves special mention as his sound effects worked seamlessly with Bembridge’s lighting, creating some very emotionally heavy moments.
The fact The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis has endured for the last 50 years is not by mistake. By giving St. Louis such high-quality productions like The Royale (and all of their productions of their golden anniversary), they have proven time and time again they are truly a theatrical heavyweight. Pound for pound, this production of The Royale is an absolute must-see. | Jim Ryan
The Royale runs through March 26. For tickets and showtimes, please visit www.repstl.org