'The Royale' Tells the Story of a Boxer Breaking the Color Barrier
When Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, it was a huge step forward in the role of African-Americans in professional sports. But big-time, professional sports had a much earlier story of integration in this country.
Jack Johnson was the first black man to win the world heavyweight boxing championship in 1908. It was a story every bit as charged as the Jackie Robinson story for how it affected Americans, and the athlete himself. This real-life story informs the fictional one at the center of a play at the Milwaukee Rep, The Royale.
The play was written by Marco Ramirez, best known for writing the TV series Orange Is the New Black. The set is minimalistic - lit strongly from behind by flood lights, and the boxers face the audience, rather than each other. And although The Royale is set in the first decade of the 20th century, director Kevin Ramsay says the story and characters are very relatable to a modern audience.
"We get to engage the audience on a subject matter that is prevalent to some of the issues that are surrounding our country and where we are right now," says Ramsay. "It's a piece that doesn't hit you over the head, but you're able to see each one of these characters is fighting for something."
The play stars actor David St. Louis as the fictionalized Jack Johnson character, known as "Jay Johnson." For St. Louis, this role is very familiar. He is actually a former boxer himself, and says that although acting and boxing may seem worlds apart, they have a lot of similarities.
"I'll tell you, the first time you take a punch in a ring for real, is kind of like the first time you step on stage and those lights hit you for real," he says.
The Royale is playing at the Milwaukee Rep's Steimke Studio through November 6.