THE BASICS: THE ROYALE, a play by Marco Ramirez, directed by Verneice Turner, co-produced by The Paul Robeson Theatre and Revelation Theatre, starring Vincenzo McNeill, Roosevelt Tidwell III, VerNia Sherisse Garvin, David Mitchell, and Matthew Ball. 9/8 – 24 Thur – Sat at 7:30, Sun at 4:00. Thursdays are Buy One, Get One Free. All shows at The Paul Robeson Theatre, 350 Masten Avenue, Buffalo NY 14209. (716) 213 7253, revelationtheatre.org, African American Cultural Center (716) 884-2013
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: This play was inspired by the real-life story of the 1910 “Johnson–Jeffries riots” after African-American boxer Jack Johnson, the first black World Heavyweight champion, defeated white boxer James J. Jeffries (dubbed the “Great White Hope”) in a boxing match called the “Fight of the Century.” After Johnson defeated Jeffries white people all across America started race riots. In this play set in 1905, Jay “the Sport” Jackson is about to become the first black Heavyweight Champion of the World. But for Jay, as his aspirations and success become real, so do the harsh truths of life in Jim Crow America and the consequences they could have on his family back home. As much as Jay’s wants “Ain’t about bein’ no Heavyweight Champion of the White World. It’s about bein’ Champion, period” THE ROYALE examines some of the questions cultural heroes must ask themselves.
RUNTIME: 90 minutes, no intermission
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Set on a minimal but realistic stage, THE ROYALE stars a number of favorite Buffalo actors known for their intense portrayals. Vincenzo McNeil, whom I loved as “David” in SPEED OF DARK, as “Elmore” in KING HEDLEY II, and especially as “Wolf” in TWO TRAINS RUNNING, here is well cast as Jay “The Sport” Jackson, an up-and-coming boxer with a trash-talking mouth, a mind of his own, but also with a sister whom he loves.
His trainer “Wynton” is played by Artie-Award-winning (Outstanding Actor) Roosevelt Tidwell III, who sometimes offers encouragement, sometimes sage advice, and at one point delivers an August Wilson-worthy monologue when he tells us the story of “The Royale,” an after-work free-for-all boxing match the memory of which still haunts him to this day. I’m not going to reveal the story here, but it’s a winner and worthy of becoming the title of this play. Tidwell is one of those actors who, in a completely understated way, draws you in and stays with you long after the show is over.
David Mitchell, with his gravelly voice, is at his best when playing a man under pressure from all sides, as he is here as “Max,” the manager and fight promoter, bringing “The Sport” up through the ranks and setting up the fight of the century.
VerNia Sharisse Garvin plays “Nina,” Jay’s sister whose character represents all the black communities “back home” living under Jim Crow restrictions. And Matthew Ball has the unenviable role of “Fish” who gets to get knocked around and knocked out by Jay in the ring.
Playwright Marco Ramirez credits the play OF MICE AND MEN as his introduction to theater and that sounds about right, with that play’s threat of violence toward Lennie hanging in the air and George’s having to consider his own actions against what society expects. Ramirez has said “Had I not read every August Wilson play ever, I might not have written THE ROYALE… His voice is such an important part of what made me a writer. These things are in my theatrical DNA…” And this is a very Wilson-like play, only a lot shorter, coming in at only 90 minutes. So I would say that if you like what the PRT has done in the past, you’ll like THE ROYALE.
The play was directed by beloved local actor Verneice Turner who has stepped in, pro-bono, to lead the Paul Robeson Theatre as it struggles to come back after well-publicized leadership problems in the past, not to mention COVID, and Turner has set up a very ambitious series of Buffalo premieres by local artists, two this fall (immediately following THE ROYALE) and two more next spring.
Unfortunately, the Paul Robeson Theatre’s website is still being rebuilt, so here’s what’s next, with all four remaining shows to be onstage Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 4:00 pm:
- TOLLEY’S PLACE – September 29 to October 15, 2023, a premiere by local artist and community activist Shirley Sarmiento focusing on four African American women who want “to live their lives rather than just survive.”
- HOARDING HOPE – October 20 to November 4, 2023, a premiere by the local actor (dubbed by Anthony Chase as“Buffalo’s First Lady of Cabaret”) Kerrykate Abel-Smith about a nurse during the AIDS crisis.
- THE POLISH CLEANING LADY’S DAUGHTER – March – April, 2024 (exact dates TBD), a premiere by Paula Wachowiak produced by the PRT “as part of the mission to bring understanding and realization of the commonality we all share.”
- A PITCH FROM SATCHEL PAIGE – April – May, 2024 (exact dates TBD), a premiere by father and son Loren and James Keller about the Negro Leagues and one of Baseball’s legends.
Lead image: Matthew Ball as Fish | Vincenzo McNeill as Jay Jackson
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!