The Royale, a play by award-winning Sons of Anarchy and Orange is the New Black writer Marco Ramirez, hits our Fielding stage April 11th and boy does it pack a punch. (Yes, prepare for the boxing puns.)
Ramirez has set The Royale’s stage between 1905 and 1910. By the prime of his pugilist-protagonist Jay Jackson’s time, the world of basement, bare knuckle prizefighting had just one-eightied into extravagant, glimmering arenas saturated with pomp and grandeur that pulled out the pockets of even New York City’s top social strata. But the sportsmanlike display of pugilist machismo we know and love to see had come a long way, even then.
Before the turn of the century—before the likes of legendary promoters like Tex Rickard—the American ringside was no voguish, venerated place to be. Au contraire. It was only the sort of place you’d bring your lady friend for a night out on the town if you were certifiably out of your mind. For one thing, because the overwhelming stench of smoke and unwashed bodies might offend her. Also, because the venues were typically fraught with knuckledusters, pickpockets, drunks, and other sorts of degenerates that liked to watch people fist fight.
And yet, this underground atmosphere of filthy, bare-fisted fighting was prevailingly popular, [and I hate to point fingers, but concerningly popular] in the states that hadn’t yet outlawed slavery. However, we the Northeastern pot could not call the Southern kettle black; even in the states which had nixed prizefighting—looking at you New York tri-state—fisticuffs was the new American’s pastime. Brooklyn, Boston, and Jersey immigrant ghettos were the place to be if you enjoyed a good maiming. The Irish, for example, upheld this fun tradition of beating the tar out of each other in what was called “Irish stand down”…basically removing all the aspects of fighting which involved maneuvering, skillfull avoidance, or any other such peacocking nonsense, and either swinging till your arms fell off or letting your jaw get pulverized, like a man.
Well, by around 1906, Tex Rickard and a handful of enterprising sportsmen had flipped all this around. Suddenly a boxing bout was a place to wear your Sunday best. Seasoned fighters were becoming celebrities, even symbols of national pride. Men like the “Boston Strong Boy” John Sullivan, Gentleman Jim Corbett, the “Boilermaker” James Jeffries…but more than being a new form of entertainment, boxing inadvertently began to blur the “color lines” separating America. African American fighters were squaring up with the best of the white guys, and sometimes—in cases like Joe Gans or Sam Langford—they were better. Sometimes much better. In Jack Johnson’s case, I daresay…even the best.
This tentative meshing of lightweight fighters led eventually to the game-changing 1910 heavyweight bout between the undefeated James Jeffries and the unstoppable Jack Johnson. You may also know it as this little thing called the “THE FIGHT OF THE CENTURY.” And if you don’t know it…you must unquestionably see The Royale.
The Royale premieres on Geva’s Fielding stage April 11th and will run through April 28th.