“The search for the white hope not having been successful, prejudices were being piled up against me, and certain unfair persons, piqued because I was champion, decided if they could not get me one way they would another.” – Jack Johnson
“Just remember, whatever you write about me, that I was a man.” – Jack Johnson to a reporter shortly before his death.
“[Johnson was] this amazing negro from Texas, this black man with the unfailing smile, this king of fighters and monologists… No one understands him, this man who smiles. Well, the story of the fight is the story of a smile. If ever a man won by nothing more than fatiging [sic] than a smile, Johnson won today.” – Jack London
“A word to the black man – Do not point your nose too high. Do not swell your chest too much … Remember you have done nothing at all. You are just the same member of society you were last week.” – Los Angeles Times, the day after Jack Johnson’s defeat of Jim Jeffries, July 5th, 1910
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Taking in the enormity of the life of Jack Johnson, the first Black heavyweight champion, is an overwhelming feat. He was considered by some, including the great boxing scribe Nat Fleischer of Ring Magazine to be the greatest heavyweight champion in history, and certainly by many to be in the top five.
In a glorious Bay Area premiere production at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley, “The Royale,” written by Miami-based playwright Marco Ramirez and directed with stunning certainty by Darryl V. Jones, is a triumph of the highest order, a highly stylized dramatization based on the surreal existence of Johnson. In this piece, the violent poetry of fights are captured with foot stomps, finger snaps, and bursts of supreme confidence by both combatants, two men chiseled out of granite as beads of sweat glean off their bodies in succulent backlight.
In every great fight in boxing history, there is an artistic quality that comes with the violence and blood. In the spirit of the first Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Tommy Hearns masterpiece, to the methodical carving by Julio Cesar Chavez over outmatched Edwin “Chapo” Rosario, and so many before and since, the play captures this primal, pugilistic ballet to great effect.
The play parallels so many of those signature moments in Johnson’s own career. Much like Johnson, who spent six years chasing down fellow heavyweight Tommy Burns all over the world for a title fight after retired champion James J. Jeffries refused to give a Black fighter any opportunity at the greatest title in sport years prior, Jay “The Sport” Jackson (a deeply committed Calvin M. Thompson) is only left with an opportunity to pick up scraps from the table of the current champ to get a fight at all.
Even though his promoter Max (a pragmatic turn by Tim Kniffin) knows that Jackson is worthy of so much more, he understands that the scraps may be the best his guy can get. And assembling a team, which includes a sparring partner in the already vanquished Fish (the most effective Satchel André), is key when it comes to taking advantage of this fleeting opportunity.
Rounding out his team is the character that just about every fight film or play needs. In this case, it is Jackson’s trainer Wynton (a nuanced performance by Donald Lacy, Jr.). Wynton is certainly capturing an opportunity through his pupil Jackson that was not afforded to himself, and shares with “The Sport” some painful insight which informs the title of the show, something that Johnson had to endure as a child as well.
It was not just pugilistic pursuits that made Johnson a larger than life figure. It was everything else, a constant dichotomy of a life that reached the pinnacle of the sporting world’s imagination during the ugly and painful Jim Crow years, with Johnson arguably being the first great Black hero and the most threatening to the status quo. At a time not that long after emancipation, Johnson, given such appalling nicknames as “The Big Smoke” and “The Ethiopian,” flaunted his fast cars, wads of money, and his desire for white women. Whatever people made of him, Johnson did what he wanted because he was free. He was a deeply flawed hero on his terms, and it wasn’t his responsibility to make sure white or Black society was okay with any of his choices.
But heroism is something that the sister of Jackson is grappling with mightily. While “The Sport” is on the cusp of doing something magical, and more importantly, unheard of in the land of turn-of-the-century Jim Crow, his sister Nina (a dominant Atim Udoffia) is worried. Is she concerned about the commonplace nature of overzealous fans who constantly try to smuggle guns into these wars of 45-round attrition? As much as she is worried about her brother’s safety, what concerns her most is not if he wins, but when he wins. Will it mean that Blacks can now sit atop the throne of greatness with their white counterparts? Acceptance as athletic equals? Hardly. A Black victory means a white populous that will go to great lengths to remind those in Oakland, Chicago, New York and the deep South that they are still less than human, Black lives in constant peril.
The piece functions greatly as an ensemble piece, where the timing of the performers needs to be razor sharp. Costume designer Courtney Flores is a great chief second with her period costumes in a constant state of drab, capturing nicely a time in history where boxing trunks were an afterthought, if they were worn at all. Fight films of the time often had the greatest heavyweights looking like they were fighting in g-strings.
The lighting design by Kurt Landisman is effectively sneaky, a gleeful capturing of a boxing arena with great, slick touches. And Richard Olmsted’s set design, along with its rustic wall and hints of America overlooking the proceedings constantly brings up the question – whose America is this?
The tight Aurora space is also perfect for this show, its three-sided horseshoe seating arrangement conjuring up reflections of some of the greatest boxing venues in history, locales like Philadelphia’s Blue Horizon or the old Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles.
From Muhammad Ali, who looked at Johnson’s life as a parallel of his own, to even President Barack Obama, who had the audacity to break into the ultimate white fraternity, there is sad poetry in the fact that Johnson’s imperfect and flawed life is timeless. James Earl Jones, who portrayed Johnson on Broadway and on film in “The Great White Hope,” stated that Johnson’s story was not the tragedy. It was America that was responsible for the tragedy. From his arrest on trumped up racial charges through the Mann Act, to the final indignity of not being allowed to eat inside a restaurant just before getting behind the wheel and dying in a car crash at 68-years-old, Johnson’s life might have had plenty of glitz, but also had more than its share of surreal pain.
“The Royale” might have been set 100 years ago, but the parallels still exist to this day. For every Galveston Giant, Bronx Bomber or the Greatest to enter the ring, some of the hardest battles were fought by ordinary citizens outside of it. And if this play teaches you anything, it may teach you this – knocking down the opponent of racism may be tough, but keeping them down is tougher. It took millions to try and knock Jack Johnson down. But he ultimately kept getting up, and smiled the entire time.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
The Aurora Theatre Company presents “The Royale”
Written by Marco Ramirez
Directed by Darryl V. Jones
The Word: Based on the life of the first Black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, “The Royale” is loaded with first rate, visceral performances from the tight cast of five.
Stars: 5 out of 5
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA
Tickets range from $33 – $65
For tickets, call (510) 843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org