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The fight of the century

'The Royale' pays homage to boxer Jack johnson

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
The fight of the century
Toran White, Mark W. Soucy and Thomas Silcott in “The Royale.” (Photo: MEGHAN MOORE)

Through Oct. 8, the Merrimack Repertory Theatre presents “The Royale,” a timely show inspired by the life of Jack Johnson, the first African American world heavyweight-boxing champion.

Author: MEGHAN MOORERamona Lisa Alexander and Thomas Silcott in “The Royale.”

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Written by Marco Ramirez, the show follows Johnson as he trains for the fight of his life, both in and out of the ring. Johnson’s historic win over white opponent James J. Jeffries in a match dubbed “The Fight of the Century” on July 4, 1910 sparked race riots across the country. At least 20 people were killed and hundreds more injured. Johnson reached a level of sports celebrity largely unheard of before then, but at a difficult cost.

Though based on the real-life Jack Johnson, “Royale” is not a direct historical reflection of his life. Actor Thomas Silcott, who plays the boxer, says this allowed the show to transcend the boundaries of historical fiction and draw parallels to the present day.

The topic of black sports players’ role in the fight for racial equality is as relevant as ever in light of the recent NFL protests of racism, decried by President Trump in Twitter posts. “Every day he opens his mouth and makes the production that much more important,” Silcott says. In addition to the racial component, Silcott says, the play is about humanity and relationships. The actor draws from his own experience as a father when portraying the compassionate moments of the play.

“The Royale” is as physical as the sport it portrays. Early in rehearsals, the cast took a trip to Arthur Ramalho’s West End Gym in Lowell, where “The Fighter” was filmed and where former professional boxer Micky Ward, the subject of the film, trained. The physicality of the play is a marriage between the brawn of boxing and the rhythm of dancing. “Marco Ramirez is a drummer, and a lot of that percussion is included in the show,” says Silcott.

Silcott and director Megan Sandberg-Zakian agree that the rhythmic fight scenes were both the most difficult and rewarding parts of production.

“Especially in the scenes with the trainer and the two boxers, it really feels like you’re there in the ring,” says Sandberg-Zakian. She calls the production one of the best contemporary shows of the Merrimack season and encourages audiences from Boston to make the trip. “It’s important for us to see stories about the way people have been fighting for generations to be seen,” she says. “It’s a sobering conversation that we need to have.”

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