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theatre review

Christef Desir and Dion Johnstone, right, give a riveting performance in The Royale.Cylla von Tiedemann

  • The Royale
  • Written by Marco Ramirez
  • Genre: Drama
  • Directed by Guillermo Verdecchia
  • Performed by Dion Johnstone, Diego Matamoros and Sabryn Rock
  • Company: Soulpepper
  •  Performed at Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto

Rating:

3.5 out of 4 stars

“Weighing in at 207 pounds,

Standing tall at six feet, two inches,

Toes like Jack Nimble, fists like John Henry …”

It’s Jay Jackson – Negro Heavyweight Champion of the World in The Royale, Marco Ramirez’s 2013 play set in the Jim Crow era, now sizzling on stage at Soulpepper.

And also in this corner, his weight and height not listed in the program, with a tongue trained at the Stratford Festival and moves he must’ve learned somewhere slicker


It’s Dion Johnstone – the Montreal-born actor with starring stage credits from Chicago to New York and as many seasons at Stratford under his belt as cats have lives – as Jay Jackson.

Jackson is so good at boxing, his promoter, Max (Diego Matamoros, happily hamming it up) tells us, that they call him The Sport.

Well, Johnstone’s so good at portraying Jackson with cocky charm and an undercurrent of angst, they should call him The Theatre. He’s got the flow and the physique to deliver a knock-out performance in this fast-paced “play in six rounds” that marries the patter of ringside announcers with the rhythms of hip-hop to riff on a real moment in American history.

The Royale’s Jay Jackson is a clear fictional stand-in for Jack Johnson, who became the first African-American Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World in 1908 after defeating a white Canadian named Tommy Burns.

Two years later, in 1910, former heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries, dubbed “the great white hope”, came out of retirement to fight Johnson in what was the first “fight of the century” of the last century – and when the black man prevailed over the white man, race riots erupted across the United States.

A black man celebrating Johnson’s victory in the open had his throat slit on a streetcar in Houston; another black man was hanged by a white mob in West Virginia because he was driving a nice car like Johnson did; and in Manhattan, another mob set fire to a black tenement and blocked the exit.

Freed from the burden of documentary theatre, Ramirez has his fictional Jay Jackson jump straight from fighting a young black challenger name Fish (a sweet Christef Desir) to training to take on a white Jeffries-like figure called Bixby.

But if the playwright has made his story a little more straightforward than history was (we’ll have to wait for a Tommy Burns play, I guess), he delivers his succinct drama with style – and finds a compelling conflict not ultimately in the ring, but in his boxer’s head.

A number of people get in there before Jackson finally faces Bixby. His sister, Nina (the fine Sabryn Rock), visits to ask him to consider what his symbolically potent victory might actually mean on the streets of America for other black people, such as his nephews.

The fine Sabryn Rock plays Dion Johnstone's sister in The Royale.Cylla von Tiedemann

Meanwhile, his black trainer, Wynton (Alexander Thomas), has no advice to give on whether to win or lose the match in a country where all fights are fixed one way or another – only a tale about a “Royale” he once fought, where a group of blind-folded black men battled one another bloody in a ring for the entertainment of white people.

Although this scene is seemingly borrowed from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Thomas – a talented veteran actor with an international résumé now based in Toronto – makes the mournful monologue into a moving play within the play.

Following Ramirez’s stage directions, director Guillermo Verdecchia stages the boxing matches that frame The Royale with his fighters facing the audience. They’re more verbal showdowns, punctuated by rhythmic claps and stomps, than physical ones – but nevertheless quite thrilling.

Designer Ken MacKenzie’s decision, then, to place audiences on three sides of a real-sized ring doesn’t quite jive with the deconstruction in the script – and the denuded stage and its brick walls around the ring pose a distinct acoustic disadvantage. But if you have to lean in and listen a little closer, what you see and hear there impresses – MacKenzie’s sepia-toned costumes, Michelle Ramsay’s flashbulb lighting and Thomas Ryder Payne’s echoing-through-the-ages sound design.

The real story of Jack Johnson is as well-known as any from 110 years ago: There’s a 1967 Tony-winning play by Howard Sackler about his bout with Jeffries called The Great White Hope that was also made into a movie starring James Earl Jones, while Ken Burns released a documentary about him called Unforgiveable Blackness in 2005.

And U.S. President Donald Trump actually pardoned Johnson earlier this year for a clearly racially motivated conviction (apparently at the behest of Sylvester Stallone).

Ironically enough, what Ramirez’s 2013 take on this tale does is highlight the lesson we’re currently relearning: There’s always a backlash that follows a victory when it comes to race in America.

The Royale will run through Nov. 11 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto.