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Theater review: Outfit’s boxing drama ‘Royale’ pulls no punches

There’s no question that Patdro Harris is an undoubtedly qualified choreographer and director of musicals on the local theater scene. Take his last venture at Theatrical Outfit, where he frequently collaborates: 2017’s Nina Simone show “Simply Simone,” which was unusually bold and creative by the run-of-the-mill standards of most greatest-hits revues.

And Harris’ direction of so-called straight plays is often imbued with a certain stylistic musical sensibility, too. His fine 2013 Outfit staging of “Fly,” for instance, was principally a period drama about a group of Tuskegee Airmen during World War II — but it also featured a symbolic tap dancer in the story, and one show-stopping sequence of a rousingly executed drill routine.

Playwright Marco Ramirez’s “The Royale” is another period drama (spanning 1905-1910), loosely based on the real-life Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion (and subject of the notable James Earl Jones play and movie “The Great White Hope”).

As strikingly depicted in Harris’ Outfit production, the opening match pits the newly renamed Jay “The Sport” Jackson against a novice opponent. Rather than making any actual physical contact during the bout, the men stand apart and face forward to the audience — essentially shadow boxing in a synchronized harmony of rhythmic banter and choreographed movement, their simulated punches punctuated by brief crescendos of stark lighting.

Designer Mary Parker’s exceptionally intricate work also provides similar flourishes elsewhere, when characters periodically clap their hands or stomp their feet in orchestrated unison to set the pace or keep the beat of other scenes.

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The dramatic substance in Ramirez’s “Royale” is just as powerful as the visceral style Harris brings to it. The play primarily concerns Jay’s quest to become heavyweight champion of the world by arranging to challenge the white boxer who holds the title. (The real Johnson’s match with Jim Jeffries was billed as “the fight of the century.”)

Black or white, Jay boasts, “It’s about being champion, period.” Sadly, however, in an era of Jim Crow-sanctioned racial inequality and injustice, that’s easier said than done. His admirable pursuit is wholly relatable in 2018 hindsight, of course, but it meets with fierce opposition circa 1910 — a dream that might be no more “important” than it is “dangerous,” not only in terms of personal death threats to Jay, but also the possible repercussions within black society at large.

“It’s a matter of precedent and history,” his (white) manager tries to suggest with a shrug. “Don’t take it personally.”

Cynthia D. Barker co-stars with Garrett Turner in “The Royale” at Theatrical Outfit. CONTRIBUTED BY CASEY GARDNER (For the AJC)

The show is bolstered by the fairly galvanizing knockout performance of Garrett Turner, who tackles his starring role as the cocky and conscientious Jay with both a forceful physical agility and an intensified emotional validity. The formidable supporting cast includes veterans Brian Kurlander (as that well-meaning promoter) and Rob Cleveland (as Jay’s avuncular trainer), and newcomer Marlon Andrew Burnley (as his young sparring partner).

Midway through the 90-minute one-act, at first sight of the radiant Cynthia D. Barker (as Jay’s sensitive sister), you may simply welcome a quiet reprieve from all of the testosterone and machismo on display. Enjoy that while it lasts, because she ultimately returns to the ring, as it were, to factor significantly — indeed, gut-wrenchingly — in the play’s chilling, harrowing climax.

In its own (lyrical) fashion, the ending figuratively sings with the resounding impact of a full-fledged operatic aria, just without any literal music.

THEATER REVIEW

“The Royale”

Through Nov. 4. 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; 11 a.m. Thursday (Oct. 18 only); 7:30 p.m. Sunday (Oct. 28 only); 7:30 p.m. Monday (Oct. 29 only). $20.50-$49. Balzer Theater at Herren’s, 84 Luckie St. NW, Atlanta. 678-528-1500, theatricaloutfit.org.

Bottom line: Packs an emotional wallop.

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