Jenny Nelson

Collective Consciousness Theatre Delivers a Knockout

Review of The Royale, Collective Consciousness Theatre

In certain contexts, “The Royale,” best-known perhaps from its memorable description in Ralph Ellison’s important and influential novel Invisible Man, was a humiliating contest that white men imposed upon black men—usually servants or simply people rounded up for the occasion. The black men—about half a dozen—were blindfolded and put in a ring to knock each other around to the spectators’ entertainment. The last man standing got to scoop up as much of the money thrown into the ring as he could carry.

When his trainer Wynton (Gregoire Mouning) tells Jay “The Sport” Jackson (Christopher Bethune) about his experience in “The Royale” in Marco Ramirez’s play of that name, it’s during the lead-up to Jackson’s heavyweight championship bout with Bixby, the white champ. Bixby has agreed to fight Jackson, a black man, on the condition that, win or lose, Bixby gets 90% of the take. Max (Ian Alderman), Jackson’s savvy manager, thinks Jackson can do better—if he bides his time and waits.

Jackson is through waiting. Convinced he truly is the best boxer living, Jackson knows that the sports press won’t acknowledge that fact so long as there’s an existing champ. And, since this is happening in the 1900s in the era of Jim Crow, the obstacles to a black man fighting a white man in the ring as an official championship bout are many. The fact that Bixby has agreed, even in such insulting terms, indicates the seriousness of Jackson’s challenge. Wynton tells Jackson he would “fight the son-of-a-bitch for free.”

Jay “The Sport” Jackson (Christopher Bethune) trains, in Collective Consciousness Theatre’s production of Marco Ramirez’s The Royale, directed by Jenny Nelson (photos courtesy of CCT)

Jay “The Sport” Jackson (Christopher Bethune) trains, in Collective Consciousness Theatre’s production of Marco Ramirez’s The Royale, directed by Jenny Nelson (photos courtesy of CCT)

In its production at Collective Consciousness Theatre, The Royale, directed by CCT’s Jenny Nelson, is a knockout. The small playing space is dominated by a very convincing cast that put across the drama, the wry humor, the sheer physicality, and, at last, the incredible tension leading up to that final bout. It’s a winner.

It would be hard not to root for Jackson right from the start. Based on the charismatic boxer Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, Jackson, as played by Bethune, does the original proud. He’s got great looks, a boyish smile, and the cockiness older viewers will remember from Muhammad Ali, a way of making every fight seem in the bag long before it happens.

When we first meet Jackson he’s in the ring with yet another pretender, called “Fish” Hawkins (Oliver Sai Lester), and the scene is played out with wonderfully precise timing. Rather than pretend to hit one another, the actors make arm movements and stamp their feet—which puts across a sense of the power of the punches, while the recipient reels. Mostly it’s Hawkins doing the reeling, but he manages to lend a few punches that impress Jackson—before the champ goes in for the kill. Which he does after toying with Hawkins in a credible, engaging manner.

“Fish” Hawkins (Oliver Sai Lester)

“Fish” Hawkins (Oliver Sai Lester)

Jackson’s considerable charm is palpable as, after the fight, he gets past Hawkins’ resentment and guardedness and hires him as his sparring partner. Jackson, in his fine suits and expensive tastes, is a tough act to manage, and Alderman is a perfect fit in putting across Max’s carnival barker style, his dogged dedication, and his casual racism. At times, Wynton has to caution Jackson in his presumptions, and Mouning exudes canny wisdom. When Jackson hears there have been whites trying to get into arenas armed, he is more upset about the fact that Wynton and Max have teamed up to keep the fact from him than he is frightened by the threats. Jackson’s “you working for him or me?” to Wynton bites hard.

Jay “The Sport” Jacskon (Christopher Bethune), Max (Ian Alderman)

Jay “The Sport” Jacskon (Christopher Bethune), Max (Ian Alderman)

So compelling is this small cast in taking us into the manly world of prizefighting, we may tend to forget the prim, well-dressed woman seated at the back of the stage (Tamika Pettway). Eventually she will arrive—on the very eve of the championship fight—and throw shade upon all that Jackson has accomplished.

She’s not (as you might expect) a woman with a dirty secret from Jackson’s past, but rather his sister, Nina. And what she has to say is a heartfelt fear that, if Jackson wins, the sight of a black man rising above his station will bring down reprisals against innocent blacks and children, such as her sons, Jackson’s nephews. She sees Jackson, in his ambition and self-love, as concerned only with himself and his fame. But in Jackson’s view, the stakes are higher; he sees himself fighting as his sister’s champion, to strike a blow against cultural ideals restricted to white standards. In some ways, the fight between brother and sister eclipses the championship bout and The Royale dramatizes that quite well with Pettway giving Nina a single-minded purpose quite the match for her brother’s.

Nina (Tamika Pettway); Wynton (Gregoire Mouning), “Fish” Hawkins (Oliver Sai Lester)

Nina (Tamika Pettway); Wynton (Gregoire Mouning), “Fish” Hawkins (Oliver Sai Lester)

To the victor goes the spoils in a Battle Royale, and here the victims are the victor’s too.

 

The Royale
By Marco Ramirez
Directed by Jenny Nelson

Assistant Director/Choreographer: Michelle Burns; Stage Manager: Ashley Sweet; Assistant Stage Manager/Propsmaster: Emily Charley; Set Design: David Sepulveda and Jamie Burnett; Lighting Design: Jamie Burnett; Costume Design: Carol Koumbaros; Sound Design: Tommy Rosati; Producer: Dexter J. Singleton

Cast: Ian Alderman, Christopher Bethune, Oliver Sai Lester, Gregoire Mouning, Tamika Pettway

Collective Consciousness Theatre
March 28-April 14, 2019

What's Up and What's Coming

Last week, Yale Repertory Theatre opened Carl Cofield’s lively, hilarious, and hi-tech version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night which features a very engaging cast. The show is up until April 6th. My review can be found here.

Sir Toby (Chivas Michael), Feste (Erron Crawford), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Abubakr Ali) in the Yale Repertory Theatre production of Twelfth Night, directed by Carl Cofield

Sir Toby (Chivas Michael), Feste (Erron Crawford), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Abubakr Ali) in the Yale Repertory Theatre production of Twelfth Night, directed by Carl Cofield

 On Monday, Long Wharf Theatre announced three of the four shows of its 2019-20 season, which will be the theater’s 55th. As the season that precedes 2020-21, which will be the inaugural season of recently hired Artistic Director Jacob G. Padrón, next year was billed as transitional, as Padron spoke of Long Wharf’s will to “lead a revolution that will redefine American theater.” Citing managing director Joshua Borenstein’s comment that “all great movements have local beginnings,” Padrón outlined the three characteristics his team looked for in choosing plays: 1.“Undeniable excellence,” 2. Plays that reflect the demographics of the city of New Haven (which is over 42% white, over 35% black, over 27% Hispanic or Latinx, and over 4% Asian); 3. Plays that are “in conversation with the world.” Padrón said, “the world is on fire,” and he sees theater as “a catalyst for social justice.” In terms of emergent strategies, theater can either be advancing and progressing, or regressing into stagnation. Padrón wants Long Wharf to be known for its inclusiveness, as a theater that welcomes everyone, for its artistic innovation, and for its ability to forge connections with community.

First up, from October 9 to November 3, is On the Grounds of Belonging by Ricardo Pérez González, directed by his longtime collaborator David Mendizábal of the New York-based Sol Project, of which Padrón is founder and artistic director, and which partnered with Yale Repertory Theatre on El Huracán, the opening show of the Rep’s current season. The play is a “breathtaking new story of forbidden love in 1950s’s Jim Crow Texas.”

In the Thanksgiving to Christmas slot is “a modern adaptation of a classic work” (that’s not the title, though sounds as if it might be). The play, yet to be announced, will be one “in conversation with new work,” in a production that “breathes new life” into an important, older work of theater.

The new year begins with I Am My Own Wife, by Doug Wright, a Yale grad, with a director still to be determined. The show is a Pulitzer Prize-winning play “about survival and identity” of a transgender person in East Berlin during and after World War II, with a single actor playing over 40 roles. February 5-March 1, 2020.

Mid-March to mid-April is The Chinese Lady by Lloyd Suh, a member of the Ma-Yi Writers Lab. In its third production, the play, “inspired by the true story of America’s first female Chinese immigrant,” will be directed by Ralph B. Peña, a founding member and current artistic director of Ma-Yi Theater. March 18-April 12, 2020.

Work by a female playwright and a female director will by featured in The Great Leap by Lauren Yee, a Yale grad and member of the Ma-Yi Writers Lab, and directed by Madeline Sayet, a CT native noted for her work incorporating the stories and traditions of the Mohegan tribe. The play is “a thrilling underdog story of basketball and foreign relations in 1980s China.” May 6-31, 2020.

This week the Long Wharf’s current season continues with tonight’s press opening of An Iliad, Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s adaptation of Homer’s Iliad (in Robert Fagles’ translation), directed by Brooklyn-based theater person Whitney White. It’s a two-person play with Rachel Christopher as The Poet and Zdenko Martin as The Muse and runs unti April 14. My review can be found here.

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Tomorrow night, Yale Cabaret opens its fourth annual Satellite Festival, which runs Thursday, 3/28, through Saturday, 3/30. My preview can be found here.

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Tomorrow night, Thursday, March 28, Collective Consciousness Theatre opens its third and final show of the 2018-19 season, Marco Ramirez’s The Royale, directed by CCT’s Jenny Nelson, a play set in the racially segregated world of boxing in the early 20th century. The show runs 3/28-3/30, 4/4-4/6, and 4/11-4/14. For Brian Slattery’s preview go here.

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