Brandon Morgan as Jay in The Royale.

Image: Tasha Gorel

Directed by Brandon Weinbrenner, The Royale fictionalizes the struggle of Jack Johnson, the Galveston-born, African-American boxer who became the world heavyweight champion while navigating America's Jim Crow racial divisions. 

The star is Brandon Morgan as Jay, who dominates every scene across an efficient 70 minutes. I have been impressed with Morgan since I first saw him at Stages in My Mañana Comes, and most recently at The Alley in Skeleton Crew. He perfectly captures Johnson’s charisma and sheer ambition—which is sometimes fueled by disappointment, sometimes by arrogance—in the lead-up to a “Fight of the Century,” when he defeated boxer Tommy Burns to earn the 1908 world championship.

Demanding physical moves are the most amazing part here, and that owes much to the boxing coach for the play, Luke Fedell. But all the performers move in ways that set the tone for the production, and the movement direction by the superlative Harrison Guy is convincing and engaging on every level. Morgan was fully sweating by the end of the show, which makes you realize how difficult it is to sustain that level of physicality. This is accentuated by minimalist staging and simple, turn-of-the-century costumes, which get out of the way and highlight strong acting.

Shawn Hamilton plays Jay’s longtime coach, Wynton. He’s the one who reveals the exploitation of black people in the boxing world before the ascent of Jack Johnson. Economic forces also permeate the decisions of other players, including Josh Morrison as Max, the white manager described as “a shark in a human skin.” Morrison easily conveys the complexity of his role; part showman, part negotiator, he's in it for himself and Johnson in a world that is resisting the rise of African Americans in the sports world. Jarred Tetty as Fish also impresses with a physical performance, as well as a moving role as a victim of the race riots triggered by Jay's ostensible victory in the ring.

The more troublesome role is that of Nina, played by Estee Burks. I have no problem with her performance, but it is an odd intrusion to have Nina, who is supposedly Jay’s sister, show up the night of the big fight to lecture him about how people could get hurt. In my research I could find no evidence of a sister like this, and it was a little too much deus ex machina for me. But I did enjoy watching Jay respond to her annoying taunts that he imagines while he is fighting with all his might, suggesting that perhaps playwright Marco Ramirez thought Johnson should have been torn about the repercussions of winning this big, game-changing match.

Ultimately, I think this play missed a chance to emphasize how stormy Jack Johnson’s life really was: troubles with women, troubles with the law, his celebrity status that made him known the world over, his lucrative endorsements, his decadent lifestyle, and his fleeing from the law in Europe for several years. I know, I know: This is a slice of his life. But Johnson was more complicated than this play suggests, even if watching Brandon Morgan portray him is still a gripping and fascinating look into the important aspects.

The great choreography and excellent ensemble cast are thrilling to watch. And the deft use of interior monologue juxtaposed by issues such as race and the media, as well as the role of money in the sports world, create an impression of Johnson, the man. This kind of psychological realism in the era of Jim Crow also reminds us that in boxing, and maybe even in real life, “the person most likely to take you down ain’t even in the ring.”

Thru April 27. Tickets $30. Rec Room, 100 Jackson St. 713-344-1291. More info and tickets at recroomarts.org.

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