Rep Studio Closes With Rhythmic, Powerful Boxing Story “The Royale”

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Akron Lanier Watson as Jay Jackson in “The Royale” at the Rep Studio. Photo: Jon Gitchoff

With stomps, hand claps and body percussion, the sounds of a boxing match become stylized and choreographed for a beautiful insight into the sport with “The Royale,” the closing production of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Studio Theatre season. Dipping into a sport that Negro gentlemen started to dominate in the early century, we also get a look at how they were treated poorly and taken advantage of while managers and promoters flourished.

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Lance Baker announces the fight with the ensemble of sound effects behind him in the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Studio production of “The Royale.” Photo: Jon Gitchoff

Akron Lanier Watson looks like a boxer and has the acting chops to bring the fictitious (though based on the iconic Jack Johnson) Jay “The Sport” Jackson to vibrant life. He acts with his body and his face as expressively as he delivers his lines to show the pain, joy and explosiveness of his character. Although we know his manager, Max- a wonderful performance by Lance Baker- must succumb to the manners of the time, it’s difficult to watch him make promises that he knows he can’t keep to his fighter. Mr. Baker also works as the highly effective ring announcer.

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Samuel Ray Gates as Wynton gives some insight to Akron Lanier Watson as Jay in “The Royale” at the Studio Theatre at the Rep. Photo: Jon Gitchoff

The cast excels throughout as Samuel Ray Gates gives strength and slyness to trainer Wynton and Bernard Gilbert is excellent as a young, tenacious opponent (Fish) who eventually becomes a sparring partner for Jay. Bria Walker is powerful in the role of Jay’s sister, Nina, who is an ethereal inner conscience to him. In a stunning scene at play’s end, she becomes the manifestation of his opponent as he fights for the world title against the white champion. He’s battling demons from his past as well as fighting prejudice and hate against a man no one wants him to defeat.

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Akron Lanier Watson as Jay has a conversation with his sister, Nina, played by Bria Walker at the Studio Theatre production of “The Royale.” Photo: Jon Gitchoff

Maalik Shakoor and Jarris Williams round out the cast as ensemble players. Stuart Carden has directed almost with the beauty of directing a ballet. The fights are highly stylized and sometimes a punch isn’t even thrown into the space between the opponents on stage for the other to react. Scenic and lighting designer Brian Sidney Bembridge has given us a wooden, square platform placed in a 3/4 audience setting with the hint of ropes and pipes along the back wall to simulate a gym as well as a boxing ring. The palette-like square features smaller square lighting areas to designate the fighters as they rarely face each other.

Stephanie Paul designed the movement and body percussion which worked fairly well on opening night with very few missteps. As the play moves on, this precision movement and sound will only get better- even though it was truly effective with the few blips that did happen. Christine Pascual’s costumes and the sound design of Michail Fiksel also work well. The Marco Ramirez script is outstanding- a short 75 minutes long, it moves on a roller coaster of emotions. The only flaw is when one of the characters decides to listen to the championship fight on the radio at a local bar. The play takes place between 1905 and 1910 and the first radio broadcasts of any type didn’t occur until the 1920’s.

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Bernard Gilbert as Fish prepares to battle Akron Lanier Watson as Jay while Lance Baker watches in the background during “The Royale” at the Rep Studio. Photo: Jon Gitchoff

“The Royale” packs a punch while barely throwing one. It’s a perfect play for the Studio with the almost confining feel of sleazy gyms and smokey arenas as the audience is immersed in the world of the prizefighters. It plays through March 26th at the Rep Studio- give them a call at 314-968-4925 for tickets or more information.

 

 

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