The boxing drama “The Royale,” which the Forum Theatre Company opens Thursday, is a one-two punch of paradoxes.
It’s about boxing, yet there is no fight.
It’s set in 1905, but uses modern theater storytelling.
It shows the plight of African-Americans in the early part of the 20th century, but its story is universal.
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“It’s not about boxing,” said Kathryn Page Hauptman, Forum artistic director. “It’s about a man who makes a decision to change things – and what is the cost when people do that?”
“The Royale” is a fictionalized version of the rise of boxer Jack Johnson, whom documentarian Ken Burns called “the most famous and the most notorious African-American on Earth” for 13 years at the turn of the 20th century.
“He was flamboyant as all get-out. He wore big suits and drove fast cars,” said Aaron Profit, who plays the boxer’s fictitious alter ego, Jay Jackson.
Robert Barnes, who plays Jackson’s trainer, compared Johnson’s/Jackson’s brashness to Muhammad Ali.
“That’s going to make people get on the edge of their seats a little bit,” Barnes said. “You’re going to see the relationship between a boxer, a trainer and a guy who’s going to be a promoter. …
“But we’re going to take you through a journey with a little bit of rhythm and some straight talk and some stuff you can relate to that’s happening in the world today,” he added.
“The Royale” is written by Marco Ramirez, writer of the miniseries “The Defenders” and “Daredevil,” and scriptwriter for episodes of “Orange is the New Black,” “Fear the Walking Dead” and “Sons of Anarchy.”
A rhythm is built into the script, Hauptman said, that is satisfied by stomping, clapping and body percussion. Two additional performers will join the five-person cast to complete the aural effects.
“You never really see two people fighting,” she said.
Mark Anderson, who plays Jackson’s promoter, said the script had to be fictionalized to streamline the obstacles that Johnson had to overcome to get his chance at the title.
“Jack Johnson is a really interesting character in terms of what he did and what he had to overcome,” Anderson said. “Look at all the breakthroughs in sports now, and remember this is more than 100 years ago.”
The story and the script are still very relevant today, Profit said.
“As individuals, we all are willing to do something to make a change, and sometimes that ‘why’ becomes very personal,” he said. “Right now, people are being really bold and stepping up.”
Hauptman said it rings true today in many ways.
“Any time there is a change where people start to lose power, there’s a backlash,” she said. “That’s a result of fear, and that’s what happened between 1905 and 1910. He won a championship … There’s so many changes going on, and so many more people have power – people of color, women – and it creates tension.”
Anderson said violence is expressed without being seen on stage.
“It plays out in structure a bit like a typical sports movie, like ‘Rocky,’ what you’re expecting with the combat and the buildup and the payoff,” Anderson said. “But unlike any other boxing movie you see, where the payoff is very visceral and the physicality and the contact, you get the perspective of what’s happening internally expressed externally. It’s a really interesting way to present something that’s not just violence.”
Deontae Hayden, who plays Jackson’s sparring partner, said that the racial barriers continue. While a student at Wichita Northeast Magnet School, he played sports at Southeast High School, and was the only African-American player on the soccer team, which brought racial taunts in the 2000s.
“It’s a humbling experience as an African-American, and I was wondering why they didn’t teach this (about Johnson) in school,” said Hayden, who minored in theater at Kansas State University.
Rounding out the cast is Anjelica Breathett, who plays Jackson’s sister.
Hauptman was already familiar with Profit and Barnes and cast them in the roles. For auditions for the rest of the cast, she went to the Kansas African American Museum in Wichita.
“It was very exciting to find those African-American actors. It’s going to open up a lot of possibilities for us to push for diversity in all of our casting and show selections,” Hauptman said. “From that standpoint, it’s exciting for theater here in general.”
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, Feb. 8-25
Where: Wilke Center, First United Methodist Church, 330 N. Broadway
Tickets: $17 for the Feb. 8 preview; $25 for other dates. The Feb. 15 show will be “pay what you can,” with donations taken following the performance. Tickets are available at forumwhicita.com or 316-618-0444
Special events: Meet the cast reception, Feb. 9; preshow discussion (at 1 p.m.) and postshow discussion, Feb. 11 and 18