There are all kinds of fights going on in playwright Marco Ramirez's 2015 work The Royale. There's the literal fight between Jay "The Sport" Jackson (a thinly-veiled, fictionalized version of Jack Johnson, the first African-American world heavyweight boxing champion) and his opponents. There is the fight against the institutional racism that is determined to keep Jackson from the championship. And there is the battle that Jackson fights within himself as he pushes against the boundaries of his time (the play is set in 1905) and the limits of his body.
"It's based loosely on Jack Johnson and his pursuit of the title fight against a white challenger," says Sharon Graci, who serves both as the director of Charleston's PURE Theatre production of The Royale and as the company's Artistic Director. "And it takes a look at the cost of that kind of pursuit. The cost to him personally, the cost to the collective of people, the friction between the races, and what happens when you're out there at the vanguard of social change, which Jack Johnson was."
It's a performance that requires an actor to be at the peak of their physical and mental powers, and Graci says that Michael Smallwood, who portrays Jay Jackson, was more than up to the task.
"Michael is just a terrific actor," she says. "His job, and the job of all actors, is to get inside the totality of a character and to embody all the human qualities that ultimately make professional theater so exciting and accessible and important to us as a society. When a performance is truly good, a person can sit in the audience and say, 'I empathize. I recognize those feelings. I've felt that way myself, even if my actual experiences have been different.' Art is the great connector, and theater is great at that connection to knowledge."
There is certainly plenty of pugilistic skill on display in PURE's production, but it's always in service of a larger metaphor.
"The fighting is very stylized," Graci says. "And while it's set in a ring, the ring is a metaphor for your life in general. It's about putting up your dukes and fighting for what you believe in and fighting for your life's work. I think we see that Jay and every other character in the play are all in that metaphorical ring with their dukes up, fighting for what they believe in."
There's a rough rhythm in Ramirez's dialogue that echoes the rhythm a fighter needs in the ring. There are percussive elements both in the characters' speech patterns and in their stage directions. A sudden, barked "HA!" or a sharp handclap speak volumes about the tension and defiance just underneath the surface of the play's characters.
"Marco writes to highlight and punctuate things within the script," Graci says. "And not just within the fight sequences; he's added these percussive elements already that underscore the dialogue. I looked at that underscoring and thought, 'Why don't we take this a little further?'"
By "a little further," Graci means that she wanted PURE's version of the play to have its own unique score. "Original scores are not new to me as a director," she says. "I've employed them in the past because I'm fascinated with using soundscapes in my performance like you would in a film score."
And she knew just who to reach out to to compose it: Charleston drummer extraordinaire and Grammy nominee Quentin Baxter, who's worked with Marcus Roberts, Joey DeFrancesco, Donald Byrd, Gregory Hines, Me'Shell NdegéOcello and India.Arie, among many others.
"Marco is an extraordinary playwright and he's also a drummer, so he's into percussion," Graci says. "So I asked Quentin Baxter, a drummer, if he would be interested in writing a score for this piece that will weave into the lines of dialogue and some of the fighting."
The score lends a sense of unstoppable propulsion to The Royale, as if Jackson is headed full-throttle towards his fate, and towards history. It also means that Smallwood and the rest of the cast, including Mark Landis, Joy Vandervort-Cobb, and Joel Watson, had to learn the dialogue and how to deliver it over the constant, shifting rhythms.
"We took a couple of weeks of rehearsals to learn how to use the score to support the moments that we're building onstage," Graci says. "Then Quentin will come back and spend the last week adjusting and suggesting ways to make it more powerful."
Both the preparation process and the play itself were challenges that Graci says PURE is up to.
"I just wanted to go further," she says. "I kind of think with this being PURE's 15th year, we're not babies anymore. There's a maturity and confidence to our work, and anytime we introduce a challenging element, that's an opportunity to chase the theater company that we want to be. It just means you have to put in more time. And you have this wonderful opportunity to trust in the limitless capacity of creative expression."