The morning after election night 2016, the staff of City Theatre gathered in artistic director Tracy Brigden’s office. Stunned, we sat in silence, ate doughnuts (as one does), and contemplated waking up in an increasingly divisive and uncertain world. Our conversation turned toward theatre’s role as an outlet for community connection in a fractious political landscape.
As a staff member at a regional theater, I wholeheartedly believe in the power of new plays to foster dialogue. However, subscription seasons are generally programmed up to eighteen months in advance, making it challenging to respond immediately to shifting current events. Marco Ramirez’s stunning script, The Royale, is a rare play that manages to both confront the current zeitgeist and present a singular story of one man’s triumph. As Brigden describes, “The vital political message comes through in a particularly visceral way because of Marco’s ability to communicate his ideas through a very personal story. It’s a play that feels all too prescient and one I knew would enthrall our audiences.” First produced in 2013 at CTG’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles, the script feels timeless in its use of a boxing battle as the means to investigate the fight for equity in America.
Set at the beginning of the 20th Century, The Royale follows Jay “The Sport” Jackson on his quest to be crowned World Heavyweight Champion and become the first African-American man to do so. As the play builds towards Jay’s climactic fight against the reigning title holder, we meet the team supporting Jay, and, perhaps most strikingly, the fighter’s sister, Nina. It is through the twists and turns of this sibling dynamic that the script lands its hardest hits. The Royale is a play haunted by the specter of violent retribution; what are the consequences for Jay’s family if he wins this fight? Jay’s character is loosely inspired by the legendary boxer, Jack Johnson. Like Jay, Johnson broke the color barrier in heavyweight boxing. His epic 1910 bout with retired champion Jim Jeffries is the stuff of sports legend. Following Johnson’s victory, there were riots across the country as white mobs inflicted violence upon African-American communities from New York to New Orleans to City Theatre’s hometown of Pittsburgh.
The Steel City’s participation in the backlash against Jack Johnson only served to highlight The Royale’s current relevancy. That same pressing nature drew director Stuart Carden to the script. “With The Royale, Marco has written a story that is incredibly intimate, efficient, and personal while simultaneously epic, timeless, and deeply, powerfully political,” Carden explained. “I was drawn to the script immediately and viscerally because of this intersection of a story, inspired by the historical figure of Jack Johnson, that is able to honor Jack’s story and at the same time tell a much bigger canvas story about race in America and what price we are willing to pay for change. The play, particularly in this current political moment, where so many are risking so much to make change and fight for equality resonated powerfully for me when I read Marco’s words, and only deepened as I worked on the play at City Theatre.”
In conjunction with the production, City launched a new program, City Connects, a community-focused initiative to amplify and explore the ideals and values of City Theatre and its artists. The program partners the theater with organizations on the frontlines of the issues presented by our productions. During The Royale, City worked with the Pittsburgh Chapter of the NAACP and the YWCA of Greater Pittsburgh’s Center for Race and Gender Equity to host post-performance discussions and promote ways for theater patrons to become involved with both organizations. Response to the initiative has been incredibly positive, generating thought provoking conversations and increased connections to partner organizations, and City will continue the program in future seasons.
In those post performance discussions, audience members consistently mentioned their personal investment in Jay’s journey and that they were especially drawn to his relationship with Nina. In Jay’s dialogue with his sister, we discover that his desire for victory is rooted not in his ego or drive to win, but in his love for her. As Jay says, “Ain’t about no ring, It’s about you.” Watching his sister idolize posters promoting an Anglicized standard of beauty, leads Jay to want desperately to redefine the turn of the century vision of what a champion could look like. Desean Kevin Terry portrayed Jay in City’s production, and originated the role of Fish – Jay’s young sparring partner – in the play’s 2013 premiere. In tracing his unique relationship to playing these intertwined roles, Terry, too, was struck by the intimate nature of Jay’s journey, which he unearthed in his second encounter with the script. “I would say that when I played Fish, his character sees more of the creation of the Jay/Jack Johnson legend which the audience connects to. In actually playing Jay, I was surprised that his personal view was much more uncertain than what history portrays; and that was exciting for me.” The complexity of the layers contained within the text, building to Jay’s final moments alone in the ring with his sister’s pleas ringing in his ears, connects with artists and audiences alike on an elevated emotional level.
Currently in its 42nd season, City Theatre is Pittsburgh’s home for bold, new plays. The theater’s mission is to develop and produce contemporary plays of substance and ideas that engage and challenge diverse audiences. The Royale, with its vividly theatrical portrayal of the rise of Jay Jackson and the price of his inevitable victory, is tailor made to spark discussion and encourage audiences to explore both our country’s history and its future. The Royale is exactly what theatre can and should be: it offers viewers the chance to experience a vital perspective and serves as a conduit to bring people together, foster community, and utilize art as catalyst for change.