Review: A heavyweight title and race riots mark the Citadel’s latest

In the words of songwriter Tom Russell, “Jack Johnson is iron, he’s all counter punch and run.”

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One could say much the same about Jay “Sport” Jackson, the boxer at the center of The Royale, now set at the Citadel Theatre. Jackson is a barely disguised version of Johnson, the flamboyant African American pugilist in Russell’s song who stunned many observers in 1910 by defeating retired but undefeated heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries in 15 rounds. The race riots that followed the event proved how troubling this was for the white psyche. Also from Russell: “There are many white Americans who would like to see this man fall, would like to see a black man drown.”

Jackson, played by Austin Eckert, is certainly ironclad in Marco Ramirez’s heavily theatrical 2013 play, but that doesn’t mean he’s not riddled with doubts. However, none of them has anything to do with his belief that he is the equal of every white man. They have more to do with the knowledge that men with guns were consistently caught and rebuffed at the press conferences he held leading up to his hyped fight with Bernard “The Champ” Bixby, Ramirez’s deputy for Jeffries. It’s hot and Jackson knows it.

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In Jackson’s corner is Wynton (Alexander Thomas), coach and confidante. It is Wynton’s chilling story, almost an hour into the 90-minute performance, that gives the play its name and gives the process a deeper meaning. Fish (Mohamed Ahmed) is a talented young boxer whom Jackson first destroys in a fight and then hires as a sparring partner. His manager and promoter is Max, an equally ambitious but scruffy white man who is gleefully played by Troy O’Donnell, whom Jackson hardly trusts but uses as a gateway into the separate world of boxing.

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Johnson’s story was an intricate knot that doesn’t easily unravel, but Jackson’s story is as simple as a struggle in his own head. Ensemble acting is strong in The Royale, and Eckert is a charismatic performer, alternately cocky, provocative, thoughtful and stubborn. He is well mentored by Thomas as Wynton, who shouts instructions to him both in and out of the ring as press conferences and practice sessions flow through the scene.

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Jackson insists on challenging Bixby, and eventually gets it, despite warnings from his sister Nina (Jameela McNeil, who also does a wonderful job as the play’s movement captain), pointing out the possible repercussions of angry white people. There is ambivalence around him, but not from Jackson; He has too many childhood memories of his sister trying to mold herself into white ideals of beauty. Nina’s admonitions about what she sees as her brother’s selfishness collide with the fact that he is an inevitable historical force.

Performed in and out of a boxing ring set, a metaphor that screams for itself, the fight consists of stylized stomps and claps, bells and claps, with beautiful use of lighting. When used consistently, it sets a rhythm so that when Bixby sets foot in the ring it alerts you that something is happening. It’s just not that simple, and as Jackson begins to fight his championship fight, you start to realize that not only wasn’t it all about Bixby, it was never actually about Bixby.

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The king

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Where The Maclab Theater of the Citadel, 9828 101A Ave.

If Runs until February 19th


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