In Marco Ramirez’s The Royale, boxer Jack Jackson spends most of his time fighting outside the ring. He wants to be the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, but first, he needs permission to throw a punch. It’s 1905 and in the midst of Jim Crow, Jackson is not deemed a worthy opponent against the white reigning titleholder.
The play, which officially opened at Lincoln Center Theater March 7, is inspired by the real life experiences of Jay “The Sport” Johnson, who was indeed, the first African American heavyweight world champion. The production stars Montego Glover, Clarke Peters, McKinley Belcher III, John Lavelle and Khris Davis as Jackson in his New York Stage debut.
In The Royale, we quickly learn that Jackson isn’t just fighting for a title; his quest is personal. A recurring childhood memory haunts him: He and his sister, Nina (Glover), walk past their neighborhood pharmacy where she admires the beautiful women in the storefront advertisements, but they’re never black. The models are always fair-skinned. His sister sparks his burning desire to be on the front page of the newspaper. “For the first time, he wants other young black men and women—who have never seen a black person standing in a true position of power and triumph—to be able to see that,” says the actor.
“We’re still dealing with that today,” continues Davis. “Right now, in our society, we’re dealing with issues of diversity and diversifying what we see as beautiful or successful.”
One can’t watch The Royale without thinking of the recent controversies concerning the lack of diversity on major stages and movie screens. The 2016 Academy Awards were heavily criticized for their failure to adequately recognize diverse artists, and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage recently described theatre as “the last bastion of segregation.” These issues form part of a larger conversation in society today, about gender and race disparity. The Royale is “making a statement,” says Davis. “[It’s] so timely.”
For Glover, the controversy surrounding diverse representation is not so black and white. “I think a little girl can watch the Oscars and see actors, actresses, directors and designers, all of whom are talented and are deserving of the nominations that they get, and then look at another area of media and see something completely different—like all African Americans or all Hispanics, and see people equally talented, being lauded in the same ways.”
“If you look at the larger picture, that’s what I’m more interested in,” she continues. “Across the board, are we seeing a society that looks like ours? For example, you can come to see The Royale ... and you’re looking at four African Americans on the stage and one Caucasian.”
As Jackson’s sister, Glover plays his biggest motivation, but also his greatest adversary. She is there to remind him that with every success he garners, there is likely to be more violence and hatred from lynch mobs. The Tony-nominated actress says she knew a lot about The Sport’s real-life story and achievements; Davis however, was less familiar with it.
Shining a light on Jackson’s success is another reason The Royale is so special to Davis—it brings his story to the forefront, a perspective on history that can be overlooked. The actor says that growing up, his experience of learning American history didn’t necessarily highlight the triumphs of African Americans, particularly at the turn of the century. “They don’t talk about the African Americans who were not slaves,” he says. “You don’t hear about the ones who were professors or scientists. For some reason that history is, in a way, tranquilized.”
“Here we are in this moment of awakening in our society,” he continues. “Where we have to acknowledge that people of color do have a significant influence…no matter who you are when you come and see this play.”
For Glover, Jackson’s story takes on universal value. It’s a classic tale of triumph against the odds.“There is something about a descendant of slaves aspiring to a level of greatness…. It is a form of achievement and a form of self-realization that I find compelling,” she says. “We have the same story with immigrants in this country,” she continues. “I think there’s something compelling about realizing a self, any self, beyond what you were born to do, made to do, or what’s possible for you.”
Jackson’s life touts the narrative of an individual going against the grain and fighting for what he wants. In this sense, Davis says he is “just like Jay.” The eldest of eight, the actor grew up in Camden, NJ, and had to tell his family that he would be giving up on a promising football career to pursue acting. “What he has to take on, mentally and emotionally,” says Davis of Jackson’s battle against family expectations, “it’s a lonely journey.”
Like Jackson, Davis hopes his real-life journey will help inspire his own family members. “I feel like to go on and do something like this, is important for my younger siblings and my younger cousins to see—to use my walk as a beacon of light for them,” he says. “To say, ‘I can follow my dreams and do the things that I want to do. Those goals are attainable.’”
The Royale is directed by Rachel Chavkin and plays through May 1. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.lct.org/.
Olivia Clement is a news and features writer at Playbill.com, specializing in the wonderful and expansive world of Off-Broadway. Follow her on Twitter @oliviaclement_