“This play is the most difficult I’ve had the pleasure of directing.”
That’s Brandon Weinbrenner, talking about The Royale, opening April 10 at The Rec Room. The Obie Award-winning play by Marco Ramirez (of Orange is the New Black fame) borrows from the life of legendary boxer Jack Johnson, who would win the world heavyweight boxing championship in 1908, after a series of racial hurdles blocked his path to the championship.
Ramierez’s play is not a biography, Weinbrenner emphasizes. It follows the story of Jay, aka “The Sport,” an African American boxer in Galveston who wants to be the best. In order to do so, however, he needs to not only be the best among African American boxers, but also take white opponents who, in the Jim Crow-era South, have no interest in fighting him.
“It’s been challenging,” says Weinbrenner of the process of bringing The Royale to the Rec Room stage. “Some scenes in the play are realistic; others are more abstract, asking us to alter what we think about the concept of time.”
And then, there’s the boxing.
Weinbrenner admits he knew nothing about the world of professional boxing when he read the script, but he was captivated by the energy and rhythm he read on the page. Determining how to choreograph fight scenes, how to give them an abstract, lyrical feel while also seeming true to the form, was something that was only just beginning to come together at rehearsals when he spoke to us. The prospect of making it come alive, however, was exciting for the director, as he and the cast worked with Harrison Guy of Urban Souls Dance Company to get it right.
But those who find themselves in Weinbrenner’s corner—those who may not be fans of boxing—will find that the story still resonates.
“Jay wants to be the best at what he does,” explains Weinbrenner. “But in order to be the best, he needs to fight everybody—and racism stands in the way. So, his challenges becomes about, Can you call yourself the best in the world if you don’t fight everyone? And, If you do fight everyone on that quest, what sacrifices are you going to have to make? Not just for yourself, but what repercussions will there be for your friends, your family, and others like you?”
Those are the sorts of questions Weinbrenner hopes the audience will explore through the show. He says that he wants them to feel the same kind of excitement watching it that he felt as he read the script.
“I want them to feel challenged by Jay’s situation and ask themselves, what would they have done in his place?” he says. “I want them to sit forward in their seats, because this is a show that keeps pulling you forward with its energy.”
April 10–27. Tickets $30. Rec Room, 100 Jackson St. 713-344-1291. More info and tickets at recroomarts.org.