Cleveland Play House’s ‘The Royale’ is a straight punch to the solar plexus


Long before the civil rights movement, one of the few ways that a man of color could make a name for himself with whites was through boxing. It was, after all the oldest sport known to exist. Even then, it was still heavily segregated with white boxers vs. white boxers and blacks against blacks especially where championships were concerned. There was also a huge disparity in pay between the two races.

This all took a dramatic turn on December 26, 1908 when Jack Johnson soundly defeated Canadian white champion Tommy Burns thus becoming the very first African-American heavyweight champion. This victory was met with derision by the former champion, Jim Jeffries who was finally goaded into the ring in 1910 where he was also soundly defeated. The Cleveland Playhouse production of Marco Ramirez’s The Royale is based roughly on the life of Jack Johnson.

Jay “the Sport” Jackson (Preston Butler III) has fought his way across the country with seventy seven victories against black opponents. More than anything else he wants to go up against the former white champion, Bixby, who must be forced out of retirement with a guaranteed 90% share of the purse, win or lose.

Jay is coached and mentored by his friend and father figure, Wynton (Brian D. Coats) who had gotten his start fighting blind folded at “six men in the ring slug fests” known as “Royales” where the last man standing got to grab as much coins as he could that had been thrown in the ring before the other fighters woke up.

They are joined by Fish (Johnny Ramey) who although a green up and coming fighter gives Jay more in the ring than he had bargained for. Jay hires Fish on the spot to be his sparring partner. The go between is his white manager and promoter, Max (Leo Marks) who manages to live straddling the white and black world of professional boxing. It is he who sets up the championship fight in spite of the heavy balance in the purse towards the champion.

The night of the championship fight, Jay’s sister, Nina (Nikkole Salter) pays him a visit and tries to convince her brother to lose the fight as she predicts the consequences that it will have for the black population of America.

Even if you are not a fan of boxing, this show is must see for the spectacular feel that it has. Although no blows are landed during the entire play, the choreography of the punches has you in a front row seat at ringside. The banter between Jay and Wynton is priceless as the old sage tries to give advice to his charge.

Preston Butler III is absolutely superb with his chiseled frame that is soon glistening with sweat as he fights round after round in and out of the ring. Leo Marks is perfect as the for profit promoter who cannot hide his prejudice completely. Brian D. Coats nails the role of trainer who has seen it all on both sides of the ropes but dreams of a black champion. Johnny Ramey as Fish is the star struck kid who worships his idol and will follow him anywhere. Rounding out the cast is Nikkole Salter who tries to be the voice of reason as she uncovers the motivation behind Jay’s drive to win. The entire cast is sharply driven by director Robert Barry Fleming.

This is a violent play with adult language and situations and thus should be not be attended by children.

At the end of this play you will find yourself wanting to stand up and cheer as well as cry at the same time. This is in your face drama that goes beyond the historical tale and into the nearly overpowering struggles of the African-Americans at the turn of the last century. You will leave the theater a changed person.

The Cleveland Play House production of The Royale will be on stage in the Outcalt Theatre at Playhouse Square through May 27, 2018. Tickets may be purchased online at www.playhousesquare.com, by phone by calling (216) 241-6000 or by stopping by the Playhouse Square Ticket Office located in the outer lobby of the Keybank State Theatre.

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Who is Mark Horning?

Over the course of my life I have worked a variety of jobs including newspapers, retail camera sales and photography. Eight years ago I embarked on yet another career as writer. This included articles concerning sports and cultural events in Cleveland, Ohio as well reviews of the many theatrical productions around town. These days are spent photographing professional dance groups, theater companies and various galas and festivals as well as attending various stage performances and posting reviews about them.