I met Hank Aaron once. He was in Anaheim. This was long after he had retired from the Milwaukee Brewers, long after he had broken Babe Ruth’s career home run record in 1974 while playing for the Atlanta Braves. I thought of Hank Aaron while watching “The Royale” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. “The Royale” isn’t about baseball or Hank Aaron, but this world premiere play is about breaking the barriers of race in sports (boxing) and the kind of racial hate that surrounded a legendary match which pitted white against black.
“The Royale” is a fictionalized account of Jack Johnson’s fight against Canadian boxer Tommy Burns. All the names are changed, but the issues remain the same: A white boxer had accepted the challenge of a black boxer for the heavyweight world championship.
In 1973-1974, Aaron received death threats and hate mail. Some people didn’t want to see a black man beat a record set by a white man such as Babe Ruth. Ruth’s widow, Claire Hodgson, felt her husband would have been cheering Aaron on. Ruth (b. 1895) died at age 53 in 1948.
Ruth was alive during John Arthur “Jack” Johnson’ heyday. He would have been about 13 when Johnson rose to prominence in 1908. Six years earlier, Baltimore-born Joe Gans had taken the World Lightweight Championship by beating Frank Erne. Gans (Gant) died in 1910 of tuberculosis while Johnson was raising hell.
After two years of taunting, Johnson fought Burns in Sydney, Australia. Burns was 5-foot-7. Johnson was six-foot-two. Burns actually didn’t adhere to the color-line. He had fought with black boxers before Johnson. He was paid $30,000 while Johnson received $5,000.
Burns’ defeat after 14 rounds was by a referee’s call and it set into motion a call for the Great White Hope. Finally, in 2010, another former heavyweight champion came out of retirement: James J. Jeffries. Jeffries had been retired for six years and had to lose some weight to get back into fighting shape. The fight took places in Reno, Nevada on the 4th of July, with Jeffries losing after 15 rounds. It was this victory by Johnson that was the catalyst for riots. People, both black and white, died and hundreds were injured.
Johnson didn’t hide from the swirling controversy. He was flamboyant, dating and marrying white women–all three of his wives were white. Johns fought professionally until he was sixty and then went on to earn money through private cellar fights until he was 67. He died at 68 and he wasn’t forgotten–Muhammad Ali remembered and was influenced by him.
In “The Royale,” playwright Marco Ramirez collapses these two bouts. Johnson becames Jay (David St. Louis). We never actually see his opponent, here renamed Bernard Bixby. Set and costume designer Andrew Boyce has built a thrust stage. The wood plank floors come out to form an approximation of a fighting ring, but without the ropes. The ring is also a percussion instrument, like an oversized drum.
Ameenah Kaplan is credited with the movement and rhythm was in the original off-Broadway American cast of “Stomp.” Kaplan incorporates African-American percussive stepping or step-dancing to abstractly recreate the fights and punctuate the social commentary and verbal exchanges between characters. Ramirez only needs five characters. St. Louis’ Jay is filled with a steady courage and the mental strength to insist on being equal in a world that accepts inequality between blacks and whites. His coach, Wynton (Robert Gossett), sees where Jay is going and is aware of the dangers ahead while Jay’s sparring partner and potential protegé, Fish (Desean Terry), can only see the positive in the breaking of the color-line. Jay has a white promoter, Max (Keith Szarabajka), who is caught between Jay and the white establishment.
Then there the woman (Diarra Oni Kilpatrick), who lurks in the back of the stage and looks on with disapproval. We don’t know who this woman is until near the end of this 90-minute play, but her issues are heavy and far-reaching. You can’t help but wonder if Hank Aaron and Jackie Robinson before him as well as Mohammed Ali and so many other barrier breaking athletes and, to lesser fan far, common day people didn’t feel the same oppression and how many before and after didn’t hesitate before such considerations.
“The Royale” is a enthralling blend of dance traditions (stepping) and socio-political prose that shows how one man faced the challenge of racism with great dignity by fighting one man at a time. Don’t miss this theatrical experience and be sure to go early to play the pre-play activities where you can decide to what worth fighting for and even throw a few punches and maybe even beat someone with a hook, jab or cross. “The Royale” continues until 2 June 2013.