The incendiary impact of one man’s struggle in the ring in the electric, gut-punching The Royale

Dion Johnstone. Set & costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by Michelle Ramsey. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper transports us to 1905, where an African-American boxer tests his mettle against the formerly retired white heavyweight champion, with incendiary results that reach far beyond the two men in the ring. This is the electric, gut-punching Canadian premiere of Marco Ramirez’s The Royale, inspired by the true story of Jack Johnson, directed by Guillermo Verdecchia and running at the Young Centre.

Determined to better his personal best of being crowned African-American Heavyweight Champion, boxer Jay “The Sport” Jackson sets his sights on being heavyweight champion of the world, convincing fight promoter Max (Diego Matamoros) to arrange a contest between him and retired Champ Bixby; a tall order, as the sport is segregated and a Black fighter has never faced a white fighter in the ring. As Jackson trains for the historic match with his manager Wynton (Alexander Thomas) and new sparring partner Fish (Christef Desir), a visit from his sister Nina (Sabryn Rock) forces him to consider the sociopolitical and personal impacts of this match—especially if he wins.

While insisting that the focus of his lonely ambition and sacrifice is about personal excellence and universal recognition as heavyweight champ, Jay gradually finds himself unable to continue shrugging off the racial and political—and personal—implications of his endeavour. And it’s not until the final charged scene in the ring with the Champ that we realize the great personal stakes driving him—and where he struggles with himself and against a long, violent history of systemic racism and oppression.

Incorporating hip hop-inspired beats and rhythms (composer and sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne), and fight choreography (Simon Fon) that focuses on both the physicality and mental state of the fighter—The Royale creates the music in the boxing ring (set and costumes by Ken MacKenzie) with movement, sound and dialogue that reflects the voice inside the fighter’s head with present, primal ferocity and cocky self-assuredness. All of this in 90 minutes and six compelling rounds of storytelling—and while there are no actual physical blows exchanged, the result is both mind-blowing and gut-wrenching—punctuated by the rhythmic soundscape and startling, atmospheric lighting design (Michelle Ramsey).

Breath-taking work from the ensemble in this intense, profoundly human story. Johnstone gives a charismatic and intensely focused performance as the ambitious, hard-working Jackson; confident, flirtatious and driven, while Jackson’s deflection of personal questions appears to be a shrewd PR move to drive public curiosity, we learn he has a far more urgent reason for protecting his privacy. Johnstone’s Jackson is nicely matched by Desir’s youthful, hungry Fish; an up and coming young fighter who’s impressed Jackson in the ring, Fish is grateful for the opportunity to quit his day job, and becomes a loyal and generous supporter and colleague on the road to Jackson’s life-changing match.

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Dion Johnstone & Sabryn Rock. Set & costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by Michelle Ramsey. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Thomas exudes warmth, wisdom and pragmatic good humour as Wynton; more than just Jackson’s manager and trainer, Wynton is a friend and mentor—and the play’s title comes from his story as a young fighter, at a place where a young Black man could make one to two weeks’ wages in an unusual fight match where the winner takes all. Rock is a force to be reckoned with as Jackson’s sister Nina; fiercely protective of her family and acutely aware of the implications of Jackson’s ambitions, Nina sees what he cannot—that this fight goes way beyond a single boxing match. Her words haunt Jackson during the fight, driving home the terrible truth of her words. And Matamoros gives an entertaining turn as the sharp, skeptical promoter Max; while he’s likeable enough through the gruff worldliness, you know Max isn’t entirely on the up and up.

The Royale shows us how one human being’s solitary sacrifice and actions can ripple out, becoming a tidal wave of universal response—and, win or lose, ambition and change both come at a price.

The Royale continues at the Young Centre until November 11. Get advance tickets online or call the box office: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

Check out the production teaser:

 

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SummerWorks: Caught in a web of deceit & love in the exquisite, heartbreaking Mr. Shi & His Lover

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I caught the closing performance of Mr. Shi and His Lover, a Macau Experimental Theatre/Music Picnic contemporary Chinese music theatre co-production, a special SummerWorks presentation at the Theatre Centre Mainspace. Inspired by the real-life love affair between a Chinese opera singer turned spy and a French diplomat, the show is performed in Mandarin with Chinese and English surtitles, with text by Wong Teng Chi, surtitle translation by Derek Kwan, music/music direction by Njo Kong Kie and direction by Johnny Tam.

A love affair between opera singer Mr. Shi (Jordan Cheng) and French diplomat Bernard (Derek Kwan) ends in scandal and imprisonment when it’s discovered that Shi is a spy – and a man disguised as a woman.

Lovely, nuanced and moving work from Cheng and Kwan – in moments of revealing solitude and in powerful, evocative two-handers. With a masterful combination of movement, gesture and voice, Cheng brings a beautiful balance of delicacy and strength to his performance as Shi; although Shi lives for, and revels in, a life of performance, he’s not prepared for getting caught in his own lie. Kwan gives Bernard a great sense of tension; his corporate sense of propriety and manners belie the deep love of ideal beauty and the heart of a romantic. As rational and logical as Bernard strives to be, he cannot explain love away when his ideal woman turns out to be a man. Mining the layers of public and private persona, betrayal, revelation, and attempted forgiveness and redemption, both must admit to real love. And in the end, each man ultimately becomes his own judge and jury.

Njo Kong Kie (piano) and Carol Wang (percussion) create a two-person orchestra for the production; positioned upstage on opposite sides, scoring and underscoring the story of Shi and Bernard’s life together and apart. The music and lyrics draw inspiration from Peking opera, pop music and modern-day music theatre; revealing the inner workings of these characters and heightening the poignant tragedy of their relationship.

Identity, perception, intrigue, scandal – and most potent of all – love; this story has it all. A performer and a diplomat caught in a web of deceit and love in the exquisite, heartbreaking Mr. Shi and His Lover.

Mr. Shi and His Lover closed its SummerWorks run at the Theatre Centre Mainspace yesterday afternoon. Keep an eye out for future productions on the show’s website.