On the surface, Marco Ramirez's play The Royale feels like retread territory. An underdog boxer preparing for "the fight of the century," the promising newbie he takes under his wing, the steadfast and seasoned trainer dispensing wisdom from the sidelines, a flashy promoter drumming up interest in the David-versus-Goliath match-up — loop in a sweeping soundtrack and you've got the same sports epic we've seen a dozen times before.
But Ramirez, and Kitchen Dog Theater with this production, has a lot more to say. Packed into its 80 minutes is a sharp commentary on race, which also pointedly demonstrates how little we've grown as a nation since the play's 1905 setting.
The story is based on boxer Jack Johnson, a heavyweight champ who broke racial barriers during the Jim Crow era and became "the most notorious black man on earth." He flaunted his success and flouted convention, openly dating white women and displaying his wealth. But as within the play, it all came at a price to both him and the people he was representing.
Director Christopher Carlos keeps the tension as taut as the ropes strung on either side of the ring, which set designer Clare Floyd DeVries has fashioned as a sort of open podium. Lit from underneath by Linda Blase, the ring glows during scene changes that are scored with period-appropriate ditties from sound designer John M. Flores.
But the action bleeds out around the ring, too, with members of the five-person cast changing costumes (costumer Susan Yanofsky pays extra attention to the details) and sitting to the side and watching when not onstage. The cast also provides percussive rhythms that function not unlike a drumline, amping up the audience and stirring up adrenaline in anticipation of the next scene.
Though its design is highly effective, KDT's production would probably still deliver its knock-out punches if staged with nothing. Toned and focused, Jamal Gibral Sterling relishes his character's showboating and digs into his playful trash-talking, never losing the twinkle in his eye when bantering with the "press" (another clever bit of staging from Carlos).
Relative newcomer Lee George strikes the right balance between fresh-faced naivete and youthful arrogance, immediately showing the audience why Jay Jackson would sign him as a training partner (all those onstage push-ups don't hurt either). And Marcus M. Maudlin commands the stage each time he enters, dispensing wisdom as the trainer who's seen it all. A scene with where Sterling and George lose themselves in a tune from their phonograph — which Maudlin sings with soulful urgency from outside the action — is especially memorable.
Jaquai Wade and Adrian Churchill get the outliers' roles, she as Jackson's sister Nina and he as the promoter with a true carnival barker's flair. Both are compelling, though Ramirez gets a bit heavy handed with Nina's pleas for Jackson to reconsider how his defeating a white man could impact blacks across the country. Wade shines most when she's left to deliver intelligent, slightly sassy, retorts to her brother. Churchill, meanwhile, just looks like he's having a blast at all times.
The majority of Ramirez's script is light on its feet and powerful when it connects, echoing the dangerous dance of skill and heft that's inherent in boxing itself. Its examination of society — both then and now — leaves a well-deserved bruise.
Kitchen Dog Theater's production of The Royale runs through March 18 at Trinity River Arts Center.