Movies and boxing have long gone hand in glove, from “Somebody Up There Likes Me” to “Million Dollar Baby.” The combination of athleticism and brutality, aspiration and anguish, are a rich mix from which to spin a cinematic story. The sweet science has been depicted on stage, too, perhaps most famously in Howard Sackler’s “The Great White Hope,” which recalled the life of Jack Johnson, who became the first African-American world heavyweight champion in 1908. With “The Royale,” now at American Theater Company, playwright Marco Ramirez takes a page from history, as well — but he’s not playing biographer.
“I did enough research so that I could tell the story dramatically, but not too much so that I got held down by it,” says Ramirez. “That’s why I’ve made sure to say this isn’t the Jack Johnson story; this is Jay Jackson, a guy I made up.”
Jackson knows his way around the ring as well as anyone, and he’s itching to prove it by convincing the retired undefeated white heavyweight champion to dance. He’s asking for trouble in more ways than one, not only testing his talent but running the risk of a racially driven backlash. Ramirez, whose writing credits include the Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black,” notes: “Lots of people hated Jack Johnson. They considered him boastful or flashy, the same way they hate Kobe Bryant or Kanye West. This is obviously a play about a race issue, but at its core, this is a play about what makes a champion tick.”
Audiences shouldn’t expect “Raging Bull” reality in the show. Not only is that tough to pull off onstage, but Ramirez isn’t keen on it. “I watch movies for that. [The play’s] fight scenes are stylized in a way that puts us inside the fighters’ heads. To me, ‘The Royale’ would’ve been lazy and unexciting with realistic boxing sequences. It’s like when someone’s telling you the story of a dream they had last night. You don’t really care about how they flew through the sky or swam through a river of gold. You care when they tell you that you showed up in it, riding an elephant.”
‘The Royale’: Through March 29, American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron. For tickets ($38-$48), call (773) 409-4125 or visit Atcweb.org
Pictured at top: Edwin Lee Gibson, Jerod Haynes and Philip Earl Johnson
in “The Royale”