Heavy is the head that wears the crown.
Based loosely on the life of Galveston-born boxer Jack Johnson, the Rec Room’s The Royale is another winner for independent theater, pulling from the story of the first African American heavyweight world champion to grapple with themes of racism in a time when smashing through barriers came with the price of violence to not only oneself, but others as well.
Long before the culturally transcendent athletes of today’s professional sports, Jack Johnson was a larger-than-life personality of the early 1900s, when his exploits in and out of the ring brought him fame and scorn during the height of the Jim Crow era. In 1910, he fought what was dubbed the fight of the century against white boxer James J. Jeffries, with many white Americans pinning their idea of racial superiority on what they called their “great white hope.”
After he beat the former champ in 14 rounds, Johnson’s victory ignited riots across the United States, including in Houston, causing the deaths of at least 20 people, injuring hundreds more.
These themes are explored throughout The Royale, which creatively finds ways to use the intimate set design to bring scenes alive with expertly executed choreography so intense that we can watch the actors gather sweat in several fight scenes and training montages. Based on a script by TV writer and showrunner Marco Ramirez (Netflix’s Daredevil and The Defenders) and directed by Brandon Weinbrenner, there are enough parallels to race relations today to not only keep audiences thinking, but entertained as well.
Brandon Morgan, last seen in Breaking Out of Sunset Place at Queensbury Theater, again shows why he’s one of the most versatile actors performing on Houston stages. He plays Jay Jackson, the reigning “colored heavyweight of the world.” We quickly are transported into the stands of one of his fights against an up-and-comer named Fish, played by Jarred Tettey, a company member of the Alley Theatre and graduate of the Houston School of Performing and Visual Arts.
We are also introduced to Wynton, played by local acting vet Shawn Hamilton, his corner man and greatest confidant, who gives the play its title in an exchange between the two men recalling the harshness of the times. Max, performed with tremendous aplomb by Josh Morrison, is Jackson’s smarmy promoter who struggles with securing a title shot with the white champion along with Jackson’s personal security.
We follow Jackson and his entourage in the lead up to the big fight against the current world heavyweight champ and learn more about each character. While gregarious and charming to the public, Jackson is all too aware of the threats lurking in the shadows as he attempts to go where no African American has gone before.
Things slow down before the climatic showdown when Jackson received a visit from his sister, played convincingly by Esteé Burks. Her warnings the fight will cause violent reparations serve to undermine Jackson’s motivations, but it’s an interesting element rarely covered among historical figures that break cultural barriers.
Morgan may not have the same stature as the real-life Johnson, but he is able to exude the charm of a boxing giant in peak form enjoying the spotlight, while ably expressing the strain of toppling the status quo. In the real world, Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson followed an eerily similar path that Johnson took to stardom, paving the way for greater equality in the decades following.
What makes The Royale soar is the work of movement director Harrison Guy, boxing coach Luke Fedell, and scenic/lighting designer Stefan Azizi, bringing fight scenes to life with impressive use of clapping, stomping, and light bursts to simulate the ferocity and balletic pugilism in the squared circle. As audience members we feel each powerful blow, giving the actors one hell of a work out in the process.
The best theatre works map direct lines to the lives of the audience. The Royale succeeds in that it’s themes still carry weight in today’s socio-political climate. In 1913, an all-white jury convicted the heavyweight champ Johnson to a year and a day in prison for traveling with a white woman over state lines, a violation of the clearly racist Mann Act. It was a charge so absurd that it took our most absurd leader to pardon him, when President Donald Trump did so in 2018, yet millions of men and women of color currently languish in prisons for non-violent crimes.
The historical relevance, extraordinary direction, inspired acting, and pulse-pounding set pieces make The Royale worthy of a night at the theatre.
The Royale runs through April 27 at The Rec Room (100 Jackson Street). Tickets may be purchased here.