Credit: Teresa Castracane

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When heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson defeated Jim Jeffries on July 4, 1910, rioting and deadly violence nationwide was a predictable side effect. Jeffries—retired, overweight, and white—had been coaxed back into the ring to face the reigning black champion Johnson with a big payday, but his publicly declared motive was more sinister: “I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.” The younger, fitter Johnson punished Jeffries for 15 rounds, and the country went crazy. It would not be the last time the ascendancy of a black man drove white America into violent psychosis.

The Royale, playwright Marco Ramirez’s imagining of Johnson’s inner life in the weeks leading up to that title fight, has had dozens of stagings since 2016, and Paige Hernandez’s svelte, powerful version for 1st Stage—a co-production with Olney Theatre Center, which hosted the show last fall—makes it easy to see why. Using only five actors and occupying less than 90 minutes, the show compresses the life-threatening challenge of asserting black excellence in a nation founded on slavery into the 20 foot by 20 foot confines of a boxing ring. (That ring, by the way, designed by Debra Kim Sivigny, who also did the unobtrusive period costumes, looks downright cinematic under Sarah Tundermann’s sawdust-filtered lights.)

Ramirez, who has written for Netflix’s Daredevil series and for the most recent The Twilight Zone reboot, takes advantage of the shroud of fiction: He has named his Johnson stand-in Jay “The Sport” Jackson— “the man who casts a shadow in the dark,” in the race-baiting banter of his promoter. Jeffries is called “Bixby” and is never seen at all. 

Bulky but light on his feet, Jaysen Wright is perfectly cast as Jackson, the hungry challenger who bobs, weaves, and parries his way through press conferences as comfortably as he does through his fights. When Clayton Pelham Jr.’s Fish becomes the first opponent in memory to lay a glove on him—fight choreographer Cliff Williams III has each opponent face the audience but react to one another’s moves—Jackson and his trainer Wynton, played by James J. Johnson, hire the man to be Jackson’s sparring partner. Chris Genebach brings his usual pained assurance to the role of Max, the promoter whom Jackson has charged with getting him a fight with the swollen white champ. Representing an elite black athlete in 1910, not to mention one who makes little secret of his appetite for the company of white women, also means quietly protecting his client from harassment and far worse. 

As Wynton, Johnson has a knockout monologue that reminds us of the savagery at the core of the oldest sport, and Lolita Marie is equally strong in her late appearance as Jackson’s sister, Nina, who pleads with him to consider the dire consequences of his victory. Individually and as an ensemble, they make The Royale pound-for-pound as compelling as anything you’ll see this season.

To Feb. 23 at 1524 Spring Hill Road, Tysons. $15–$42. (703) 854-1856. 1ststagetysons.org.

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