Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Also see Richard's recent review of Zorba
Akron Lanier Watson is great as Jay "The Sport" Jackson, a tormented black boxer, in this hour-and-fifteen minute play set in the early 1900s, and the action builds smoothly to a "fight of the century." Mr. Watson is an awesome figure in Jackson's first contest (against an opponent played by the smaller but winning Bernard Gilbert), but his battering-ram skull reveals more and more grueling torment as more fearsome opponents (one real and one metaphorical) loom before him. Samuel Ray Gates is excellent as Jackson's fight trainer, a perfect Horatio for this sweat-stained Hamlet.
The Royale's ultimate physical contest bears a strong resemblance to the 1910 Johnson-Jackson fight in Reno, Nevada, featuring a purse for the white boxer (James J. Jeffries) that would translate into more than a million dollars in today's money.
But after building himself into an indomitable foe, Jackson must swallow his pride for the promise of just a tenth of that money for himself; and then swallow his pride again when he's compared to a dumb animal; and again when he realizes the stakes extend far beyond the canvas of a boxing ring. Thanks to director Stuart Carden, it's a story soon uncluttered and undiminished by excessive theatrics, allowing us to weigh the brutal consequences in our own minds. In the later going, occasional harsh lighting adds gut-clenching moments to the drama.
Lance Baker is splendid as the boxer's theatrical white manager, cleverly raising doubts about his own loyalty, even with his insistence of complete obeisance. And Mr. Gilbert, now the black champ's sparring partner, has loyalty problems of his own. The combined effect is to isolate the fighter even more, when he finally goes up against the white heavyweight king who represents everything animalistic in the white men of 1910 America, for better or worse (and, spoiler alert, it's for worse).
There's a great twist to it all, as we reach the final contest. It involves loving-but-powerful Bria Walker as Nina, the boxer's mysterious sister who appears in his hotel suite to warn him of death threats against his family back home. And she knows she must return home as quickly as possible, because her brother fully intends to win the world championship, unleashing a nasty wave of race-based vengeance.
The whole issue of the boxer's family emerges slowly, a tantalizing secret we yearn to have laid before us. And Ms. Walker's Nina becomes the source of all the answers, one way or another. She's also this hard-hitting drama's secret weapon in the final desperate minutes.
Through March 26, 2017, in the Studio Theatre at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Visit them on-line at www.repstl.org.
The Players, in speaking order