Soulpepper Theatre Has A Mashup Royale

The Night The Great White Hope Lost It All

By Stephen Weir - Caribbean Camera
There is nothing noble about a fistfight. Blood. Flying Teeth. Broken Ribs. Brain Damage. A new all-Black (minus one) cast at Soulpepper Theatre says that sometimes fisticuffs can even tear a country apart.  
Royale, running until November 11th recreates the Fight of the Century. This was a historic 1910 boxing match that brought US race relations to the canvas and made a black fighter King of the World.
You probably know Marco Ramirez for the writing he does for TV more than for what he does for the stage. The American has penned for some big hits including Orange is the New Black, and the Marvel comic Netflix series, Daredevil.
Ramirez is said to secretly love boxing because he sees it as “primal theatre”, two men stepping into the ring, and only one coming out with arms raised in victory. In his award winning play Royale, premiering at the Distillery District theatre, Ramirez has mixed an almost-true-story of the “sweet sport” with the hardly-ever-true writing style of television.  Fast scenes. Creative lighting. Women playing men. Hip Hop inspired music.   And yes, buckets and buckets of implied violence both physical and psychological.
Ramirez has written a taut, visceral script which fantasies about the 113 year old story of the first heavy weight championship fight between a black and a white boxer. Jack Johnson, America’s first black celebrity fighter is about to step into the ring with the man dubbed the Great White Hope, James L Jefferies.
Fistfights are cut and dry affairs. You step into an alley, roll up you sleeves and have it.  Now, when it comes to championship bouts like this one, it is really a Battle Royale.  Cross-country press conferences are staged to gin up the base. The white population is incensed that a black man is free to fight a white. Meanwhile African Americans see the fight as a step towards overcoming the entrenched discrimination of the Jim Crow laws.

In Ramirez’s version of the 1910 rumble in the ring, it is Jay “The Sport” Jackson, not Jack Johnson, who is willing to give up most of his share of the purse to fight the Great White Hope, As it was with the real fight, Jay Jackson (played by Dion Johnstone) faces constant discrimination, death threats and concerns about what will happen to the African Americans if Jackson puts Jefferies down.
All of the action takes place inside a boxing ring on stage. Most of the audience sits facing the front, as you would at a match. However, in a nice touch by Soulpepper there are some ringside cheap seats on each side, for people willing to sit for 90 minutes feet from the action in the ring.
Dion Johnston and his sparing partner Fish (played by Haitian Canadian Christef Desir) put on the gloves as they prepare for the big fight. Although no contact is made as they jab and weave, the lighting, sound effects and body language of the experienced actors, makes one wince in sympathy to the flurry of body blows on stage.
Both actors are physical fit and when they strip off their shirts and start their boxing dance they make you believe that they are real heavy weight fighters.
It is the electrifying Johnstone who is the knockout in this must see 90-minute show. The 43-year old has performed for nine years at Stratford but young audience members might know him for his acting on Stargate SG-1.  The Montreal born actor played seven different characters on the Sci-Fi classic TV including the memorable alien Chaka.
Just before Jay fights the championship bout, Nina his brooding sister (played by Sabryn Rock) arrives from Michigan to convince him to let the white boxer win. 
She worries for her children and their community because of the coming “white rage”.  Jay is ready to wear the crown but is America ready to bow down?

The audience never sees Jay’s opponent, in fact the only white cast member is Diego Matamoros who plays Max the fight promoter, the ring announcer and referee.  For the final tussle Sabryn Rock portrays the Great White Hope.
The play has gotten rave reviews, so getting advance tickets is recommended.  When the Caribbean Camera attended the Friday night performance, there was a standing ovation for the actors along with a curtain call (which is difficult to do when there is a boxing ring to climb into).
Think Joe Louis, Fraser and Ali - there have been so many Fights of the Century since 1910 that the term has become a badly worn cliché.  And saying that Royale is a tour de force is also a worn out phrase.  Yet, in the case of this knockout play, it is all true!


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