The configuration of the Old Globe’s Sheryl & Harvey White Theatre – a theater in the round – is ideal for a prizefight. There’s a keen view from every seat, and you’re close enough to just about feel the smack of fist against skin and bone. But the boxing is only simulated in Marco Ramirez’s The Royale, directed by Rachel Chavkin. It would have to be. That the simulations don’t work very well is immaterial because, big surprise, this is not a play about boxing. It’s about race. That message is delivered with uppercut intensity in this one-act drama loosely based on the real-life story of heavyweight Jack Johnson, the first African-American to hold the title.
In this case, Jay “The Sport” Jackson (“The Sport” doesn’t seem like much of a nickname for a fighter) is trying to break through the white wall of big-time boxing even as bigotry, hatred and violence surround his quest. The depth of the conflict doesn’t really take hold until well into the play when Jackson’s sister, Nina (Montego Glover), appears. She also plays a key part in the big fight, which is the script’s most inspired turn.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.