“The Royale” is not about boxing.
Sure, the flexible black box that is the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab has been transformed into a boxing ring circa 1905, and actors Jaysen Wright and Clayton Pelham Jr. are on hand with boxing gloves while Jay Frisby and Chris Genebach play a manager and promoter, respectively.
But “The Royale” is about America. Its history, its audacity; the courage — and the ugliness — of its people. “The Royale” (the name comes from the barbaric Jim Crow era fairground practice that pitted blindfolded black men and boys against each other to fight for thrown coins) is a story set firmly in its time and place, but it’s still unfolding today. The story resonates, regardless of how one might feel about boxing.
“There’s no getting around the fact that it’s two men in a ring going at each other,” admitted Wright, the 32-year-old D.C. native who plays Negro Heavyweight Champion Jay “The Sport” Jackson. “That said, and this is dictated by the playwright, the play is not two people beating each other up. It’s stylized, almost a choreographed dance.”
That dance delivers. Wright reckons that the playwright, Cuban-American television writer Oscar Ramirez, “is more interested in the psychological interior of the characters than the characters trading blows.” Each fight scene is a delivered “choreo-poem,” with director-choreographer Paige Hernandez and Olney’s sound and lighting crew delivering a knockout interpretation of a boxing match, with each ‘boxer’ turned out to the audience. No blood, no bruises — just a test of mental and physical endurance.
For Jay “The Sport” Jackson, boxing is a ticket out of poverty and prejudice. But is it something more? Ramirez based his play on the real-life story of the first African American man to become the World Heavyweight Champion: a colorful, complicated, uncompromising figure named Jack Johnson who fought the “fight of the century” in 1910, sparking riots and emboldening racists decades before the modern civil rights movement began.
“Jack Johnson didn’t start with much. It’s through athleticism that he was able to rise,” explained Wright. “There was this kind of audacity to the way that he lived his life. He had big dreams and he refused to compromise on those, even when that refusal to compromise could have led, potentially, to violence.” Not for himself, necessarily, but for African Americans who were, as Wright put it, “maybe, celebrating him in a way that white folks didn’t approve of. His ambition was paid for by members of his own community, for sure.”
That makes Johnson, who was pardoned posthumously for the racially motivated conviction that led to his exile and eventual incarceration, a complicated figure. Wright noted that, “What we do to some African American figures of prominence — Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, MLK, a lot of black leaders — we put them on these platforms, and we make them perfect. We forget that they’re just people, and people have fears and people have flaws.”
And because Jay “The Sport” Jackson is a fictional character, Wright is free to interpret him in all his complicated glory, gently painting the picture of a man before his time, daring to live audaciously and fighting his own battle royale against systemic racism.
“It’s a character that’s definitely based on the early life of Jack Johnson,” said Wright. “But I think changing the name allows us and the audience to investigate what’s going on societally. It’s less of a biographical investigation and more, ‘What does it mean to be a black man and an ambitious person in 1905, when we’re not so far removed from slavery?’
“Instead of making it just about one person, you can look at it a bit more globally.”
Which is part of the role’s appeal to Wright, who grew up in a one-bedroom apartment in Adams Morgan before moving with his mom to Annapolis for high school. “My apartment building is still there, but the neighborhood around it has changed dramatically,” he said. “I was the only child; I was shy. My first play was in third grade, but in ninth grade, I found out I had a talent for it.”
High school, he figured, “was a time to meet people and connect with people, something I wasn’t so good at. Theatre helped me understand people — and myself.”
As much as theatre was a gateway for Wright, who went on to a bachelor’s degree in theatre from Grinnell College in Iowa and a master of fine arts in acting from Indiana University, he never imagined he’d be playing a boxer onstage.
“It’s funny that that’s where my career has gone, in a way,” he said. “I was a chubby kid; I was a gay kid who played tennis and was in the thespian society: I didn’t feel like a jock!”
He started working out in college. “I struggled with myself, was critical of how I looked, and I was an introvert anyway, so the gym was just an easy place for me to go.
“I never played baseball; I never boxed or anything like that,” he said. “But I did start working out, and that’s been kind of a theme throughout the career that I’ve had. I’ve played a few athletes, which is interesting. That’s not how I see myself, but other people can view me that way.”
Poetry in motion: Jaysen Wright defies gravity to play heavyweight champion boxer Jay “The Sport” Jackson.
Teresa Castracane Photography
It’s impossible to see “The Royale” and not view him that way. In a cast that also features Helen Hayes Award winner Lolita Marie as Jay’s sister, Nina, and Jay Frisby as Jay’s trainer, Wynton — Wright brings a physical, mental and emotional depth to his character that grows during the course of the play.
“He is ambitious, he is uncompromising, he is arrogant — he’s flawed,” said Wright of his character. “He’s complicated, like any of us are. Jay’s not just this idealized version of Jack Johnson. He’s a fictional character, but he’s a complicated person, which is much more interesting to me.”
Playing complicated fictional characters has been Wright’s strong suit. While he was at Indiana University — “some of the favorite years of my life, looking back, for sure” — he played Darren Lemming in “Take Me Out.”
“It was about a baseball player coming out of the closet at the height of his fame and popularity,” he explained, “which is meaningful to me because I’m gay, and getting to explore that was exciting.” And while Wright has done a variety of work, from Shakespeare to Martin McDonagh to theatre for young audiences at Adventure Theatre and Imagination Stage, he was able to come full circle and play Darren Lemming professionally for 1st Stage, the Tysons, Virginia-based theatre company that’s co-producing “The Royale.” After its Montgomery County run, the show will be at 1st Stage in February, which suits Wright just fine.
“I’m primarily in D.C. and I’ve been very lucky to act full-time, which has been my dream,” he said. “I just want to be a working actor, and this area has a really fantastic theatre community. I do musicals, Shakespeare, new work, Theatre for Young Audiences. I get to do a bunch of different stuff, which is very exciting as an actor.”
Not everything can be exciting; Wright admitted that “sometimes work is work.” But he sees “The Royale” as something special. “It’s an amazing opportunity because it allows me to work, but also to do something I care about.” For him, the play is an examination of what it means to be ambitious when you’re part of a marginalized community.
“That’s so much,” he added. “As a kid, I never thought that I could be this man who has this swagger and athleticism, but here I am. I’m just glad to get to tell a story about a complicated, three-dimensional black person. That’s not always the case; sometimes renderings on the page are just flat, so it’s exciting and rewarding.
“As an actor,” Wright said, “very rarely do you get an opportunity where you say, ‘I really want to do this because it aligns with where I am as a person and where my heart and my soul resonate.
“This is one of those opportunities.”
“The Royale” runs through Oct. 27 in the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. Performances start at 7:45 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and at 1:45 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets begin at $54, with discounts available for groups, seniors, military and students. Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org.