COHORT REPORT: BOXING IS MORE THAN A SPORT

And in this corner. . .  So begins the oldest of competitions, the brutal pas de deux known as boxing.  But “the sport” (more later) has always been much more than a fight between peers.  From Jack Johnson and James J. Jeffries to Mayweather and MacGregor, the stakes are often higher than who remains standing at the end or who takes home the biggest pot.

Of course, the city of Lowell itself holds a storied place in the annuls of boxing.  Since 1945, the New England Golden Gloves competition has been held every year at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium.  And while Lowell might not have Brockton’s Rocky Marciano, it does have its share of famous boxers, from Billy Koumantzelis (the unofficial bodyguard of Jack Kerouac) to David Ramahlo to “Irish” Mickey Ward  to Ward’s half brother Dicky Eklund, whose legendary 1978 fight with Sugar Ray Leonard proved that, in boxing at least, one can lose but still win.

But as a way toward self-respect, glory, or simply a understanding of your place in the world – a pugilistic bildungsroman – boxing is a tricky venture.  It can be an escape – sometimes the only one available – or a dead-end, as washed-up fighter “Mountain” McClintock learns in Rod Serling’s moving 1956 teleplay, Requiem for a Heavyweight, for his skills in the ring, though formidable, are of little use in the real world. Indeed, even those who achieve great success, like Jack Johnson, the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion, pay a steep price for that success, as explored in Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s inaugural offering, The Royale, written by Marco Ramirez and directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian.

From the gladiators of ancient Rome to the highly orchestrated spectacles of today, the vision of two men (or women) in a battle to the finish has uniquely captured the attention of the public – and not just the stereotypical rabble.  After surveying the crowd at a Golden Gloves match, MRT artistic director Sean Daniels noted that he was surprised to see MRT “patrons” among the audience members. Sensing the connection between the city and boxing, he was then determined to bring The Royale to Lowell.

But just as boxing is more than a sport, The Royale is more than a boxing tale.  In the play, Jay Jackson, the “man who cast a shadow in the dark” (admirably played by Thomas Silcott), must battle an adversary much greater than another pair of fists in his quest for the heavyweight title.

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Thomas Silcott and Toran White as Jay and Fish in The Royale. Photo by Meghan Moore.

John L. Sullivan. Max Baer.  Joe Louis.  John Ruiz.  Rocky Marciano. Muhammad Ali.  The list of champions parallels the patterns of immigration and migration seen in the United States. Irish. African-American. Jew. Italian. Muslim.  For boxing, with its rules and regulations, uniquely provides a level playing field, where (presumably) race and creed don’t matter.  This ideal of a fair and “clean fight” is what Max, the white promoter and referee in The Royale (played by Mark W. Soucy), hopes to achieve – despite the recognition that no rule or regulation can erase centuries of bigotry and disenfranchisement.

For race and religion were acute issues in Jim Crow-era America, and in the case of  Sullivan versus Johnson, the stakes were much higher than money or pride or prestige, the parameters broader than height or weight or reach, for they involved nothing less than the loss of white hegemony in the sports world.  The 1910 fight occurred at the height of the rejuvenation of the KKK and quickly became a fight not between individuals but between races.  Coming out of retirement, Sullivan had everything to lose and was likely a bit scared, knowing what might happen if he didn’t win and depending on the referee to limit any personal damage.

Jack Johnson won, of course. The decisive decision was a sore point, and the country reacted in a way that reflected the significance of the perceived loss of Anglo-Saxon prestige. It didn’t help that Johnson was adept at tweaking early 20th century sensibilities with his deliberately flamboyant behavior, although he was always reserved and thoughtful when discussing boxing.

In The Royale, Jay Jackson becomes acutely aware that this particular bout has significance beyond that of a typical match.  His goal is not just a win, but also respect and recognition – especially for those who have been denied a place at the table, denied even the common courtesies of everyday life, denied – to some degree – humanity itself.  Jackson, nicknamed “The Sport,” is the very personification of boxing, with all its potential for fame, fortune, redemption, and – he hopes – retribution.  Jackson is fighting not only for himself, but for his young sparring partner Fish (Toran White), trainer (Jeorge Bennett Watson), and sister (Ramona Lisa Alexander), indeed for all those who bear the burden of racism.

While the story of Jack Johnson is well known, the Jay Jackson of The Royale is not, and Silcott ably inhabits the realm of this complex man with his growing inner turmoil.  But historical knowledge does nothing to inhibit the tension of the play, and it may actually add to it, for we know the inevitably violent conclusion, even when the players themselves can only imagine.

It is a testament to the skills of Marco Ramirez that your heart is beating wildly until the last line of the play.  The playwright brings you into the thoughts of the fighters – a scary place at times – as they battle an opponent much bigger than a single person wearing over-sized gloves.

 

–K M Sorenson, Cohort

Professional fighter ready for fight
The Royale runs September 13 – October 8.
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COHORT REPORT: ENERGY AND RHYTHM

Today was my first opportunity as part of the Cohorts group, to observe the actors from the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, honing their lines from Scene 2  of The Royale, the story of Jay Jackson, (Jack Johnson) the first black boxer to attain the title of   World Heavyweight Champion.

Jay, the boxer, manager Wynton and his promoter Max are discussing negotiations to tease the retired world champion out of retirement to fight Jay Jackson. So begins the scene…

Director Megan Sandberg-Zakian led the ensemble through the intimacies of the scene with ease, commanding each actor’s best self with humorous, yet respectful comments and commentary. She expertly interceded; reacting, repeating, refining, reiterating particular phrases and words until suddenly the printed pages became as three-dimensional as the characters who spoke them.

We, as theater goers, see and feel the characters in these moments, and hear the words spoken just once; what we are not privy to, is the sculpting of each of those moments, the fine tuning of the intonation and articulation of a phrase or even a single word. the work is intensive… and impressive.

Megan led by example, expressing her vision, perspective, and interpretation of the playwright’s intentions and, in turn,  Jeorge and Tom, Toran and Mark worked to breathe  life into the characters,  four ordinary men determined to help make boxing history. With the energy and rhythm palpable in the room, I suddenly felt myself transported  from the rehearsal hall to Jay’s dressing room, near ringside; the two hours just flew by!

Boxing would not be my normal purview, But I am intrigued and curious about what comes next. Can’t wait to see them on stage at dress rehearsal!

–Carol Lyman, Cohort

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The cast of The Royale: Mark W. Soucy, Toran White, Thomas Silcott, Jeorge Bennett Watson, and Ramona Lisa Alexander. Photo by Meghan Moore.
The Royale runs September 13 – October 8.

DIRECTOR’S NOTE: “THE ROYALE”

The following appears as Megan Sandberg Zakian’s director’s note in the playbill of The Royale:

“I have no difficulty justifying boxing as a sport, because I have never thought of it as a sport. There is nothing fundamentally playful about it; nothing that seems to belong to daylight, to pleasure. At its moments of greatest intensity it seems to contain so complete and powerful an image of life— life’s beauty, vulnerability, despair, incalculable and often self-destructive courage—that boxing is life, and hardly a mere game.” –Joyce Carol Oates “On Boxing”

“It was a good deal better for Johnson to win, and a few Negroes to be killed in body for it, than for Johnson to have lost, and Negroes to be killed in spirit by the preachments of inferiority… it is better for us to succeed, though some die, than for us to fail, though all live.” –William Pickens, 1910

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Thomas Silcott and Toran White in The Royale. Photo by Meghan Moore.

Welcome to The Royale! It’s been so much fun to work with these great actors on Marco’s sparse, intense script, which has both the guts and the heart of the sport of boxing. Like a good training process, our rehearsals have featured lots of sweat, lots of repetition, lots of trash-talking (most of it good-natured…), lots of strategy — and occasionally, some tears. Because, of course, like any good sports story, The Royale jabs at some of our nation’s most profound social and political questions. Can we accept the painful cost of progress? Are we willing to accept the loss of individual lives in the struggle for justice and equity? Are we willing to put our own bodies, and the bodies of our friends and family, on the line? These are not just questions for 1910 America, but questions that resonate more than a century later. We began rehearsals only a week after many people were injured and one, Heather Heyer, was killed, as they stood up for social justice and racial equity in Charlottesville, VA.

The play takes its name from a so-called “battle royal,” a contest in which a dozen black men were blindfolded and thrown into a ring together. Ralph Ellison’s classic novel Invisible Man opens with the narrator forced to participate in one such event. In a battle royal, the participants strike out against unseen hands. Unable to see the larger context, they can do only one thing – try to survive. But even blindfolded, a fighter can feel the cost. His victory comes at the cost of others like him, even if they are unseen, unknown. The winner’s purse, retrieved from coins thrown by spectators on the floor of the ring, is soaked in blood.

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The cast of “The Royale”: Mark W. Soucy, Toran White, Thomas Silcott, Jeorge Bennett Watson, and Ramona Lisa Alexander. Photo by Meghan Moore.

The battle royal offers a dark counterimage to the flash and glory of a heavyweight title fight. Then and now, the media, the money, the fiercely divided fans, the breathless commentating, lends a sheen of Hollywood glamour to a high profile match. But, The Royale suggests, we are never too far from that makeshift ring behind a factory, where they broke a bottle instead of ringing a bell, and where, after the winner’s arm is raised into the air, after the roar of the crowd and the flashing cameras, we are left with the echoing question: what did we really win? And at what cost?

–Megan Sandberg-Zakian, Director

Q&A: Marco Ramirez

Marco RamirezMarco Ramirez has had plays produced at Lincoln Center (Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle nominations), The Kennedy Center (Helen Hayes nomination), and more. His TV credits also include The Defenders, Daredevil, Fear the Walking Dead, and Orange is the New Black.

What does a play about boxing bring to the table, that a play about a different sport wouldn’t be able to?

Boxing isn’t a team sport like basketball or football, so boxing stories aren’t ultimately about the inner dynamics of people working well together. Boxing tends to be more singular than that. It’s about what one person is willing to do, or how far one person is willing to go. Of course, boxing stories are populated with many other characters – loved ones, trainers – but when it’s time to fight, there are only two people in that ring, and when the dust settles, only one person will be the victor.

When did you decide that the fights should be stylized, rather than going for realism?

Early on, I knew I wanted to use this direct-address language-only approach to the fights for two reasons. First, no matter how good the fight choreography might be, boxing onstage almost always looks fake to me. It’s a sport about subtle movements. A dance, where the athletes are responding to their opponent’s every movement. It’s hard to describe, but like good Jazz or good freestyle Hip Hop, I think we can tell when it’s not truly improvised. Second, I thought this direct-address approach with intercut language would give me an opportunity to dig into the boxers’ brains, to move beyond the “technique” of what’s going on in their heads and get to the “heart” of what brought them to the ring in the first place.

The play has a sort of rhythm that ebbs and flows, with claps, punches, breathing, shouting. How did you land there?

Similar to the stylized fights, I knew early on that this play would require rhythm. Boxing itself is such a percussive sport – between the punches themselves, the shouts from the trainers, the ding of the bell – it just felt natural to incorporate rhythm into the play. And while writing, this idea emerged in my head that Jack Johnson (or in my play, Jay Jackson) was kind of the man who invented what we’d call Hip Hop swagger today – so the percussion only started to highlight that. He’s a boxer as much as he’s the first ever Hip Hop Emcee.

Jack Johnson & Jim Jeffries Boxing
The fight that inspired The Royale: James Jeffries vs. Jack Johnson, 1910.

How closely did you stick to the actual history of the 1910 Jack Johnson/James Jeffries match? Any interesting tidbits of research that made their way into the script?

I took dramatic license, which is why I changed Jack Johson’s name in the first place. I didn’t want to be presenting a false history, so I made it my own. In terms of research, I mostly remember things I left out in order to tell the best possible story. The way radio was used, for example, was completely different in real life, but for my story (which already presented radio-play soundscapes), it felt like a piece of logic worth stretching.

What have been some surprising or delightful things about seeing this work staged?

My favorite thing to do in this play is watch the way audiences react to the final scene. I’ve been lucky to work with so many talented directors along the way, and the manner in which they stage that final fight – you’d swear the audience was watching an actual boxing match.

Why do you write for the stage?

Because it’s one of the last places you can get people to believe in magic.

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The Royale runs at Merrimack Repertory Theatre September 13 – October 8. http://www.mrt.org/Royale

PROUD TO CALL MRT MY ARTISTIC HOME by Lila Rose Kaplan, Playwright

The following remarks were made by playwright Lila Rose Kaplan at MRT’s Set the Stage Celebration on June 9, 2017, where she received the Artistic Achievement Award:

I am proud to call MRT my Artistic Home. I’ve worked at many theatres across the country and you guys have something special here. Sean’s relentless optimism and his genuine belief in those around him make MRT a wonderful place to work. He’ll never admit it, but he’s got some serious superpowers when it comes to running a theatre.    Sean truly believes in his artists and his audience members and he teaches us how to believe in each other. We are living in a time filled with uncertainty and more than ever artists and audiences need each other. We need places like MRT where we can come together to laugh and cry about the world where we live. Between the Cohort Club and the Young People’s Company – MRT provides a home for the whole community to come together around the ritual of storytelling. I believe we tell stories to understand the world around us. And MRT provides us with compelling, entertaining and heartfelt stories to help us make sense of our current moment. I am delighted that my plays are part of the wonderful seasons Sean and his team have created.

And then there’s you. You guys are a wonderful audience. You love to laugh, you have good taste and you’re honest. You’re also kind of cute. I think I might be in love. You see, there’s a lot of speed dating that happens when you’re starting out as a playwright.   You have lots of one night stands at different theatres. You never know who’s going to call you back…. And I’m terrible at dating. I’ve basically had two long relationships, one of which resulted in a happy marriage and a child – so, speed dating is really not my thing.  And Sean gets it. He gets that artists and audiences both thrive when there is a visible commitment to them. And he’s right. MRT is unique. There are no other theaters doing so much excellent new work for such an engaged audience. And the word is out about us. I travel a lot and everywhere I go people in the theatre know what’s going on here in Lowell at MRT. Sean is truly creating a local theatre with a national reputation and I am proud to be a part of that.

I am full of so much gratitude tonight. I want to thank the fabulous staff of MRT for making me feel so welcome and all the work they do. I want to thank the First lady of MRT Veronika for always being my leading lady and a trusted friend. I want to thank my sister Jenny April and my husband Jarrett, who are both here tonight. They are my midnight dramaturges and my best friends. I don’t know what I’d do without them. And finally, I want to thank you for being a part of being the MRT family and being here tonight. I look forward to seeing you at the theatre.

–Lila Rose Kaplan, Playwright

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Sean Daniels with Lila Rose Kaplan at the 2017 Set the Stage Celebration. Photo by Meghan Moore.

Lila Rose Kaplan’s new comedy The Villains’ Supper Club opens at MRT April 25, 2018

COHORT REFLECTIONS by Tim Greenwood

Edited from a post by MRT Cohort Tim Greenwood

Three weeks ago I wrote that the just concluded “My 80-Year-Old Boyfriend” at Merrimack Repertory Theatre was not only the best thing that I had seen there, but in terms of an emotional resonance one of the most memorable pieces of theatre that I have seen in some 50 years. After seeing the show six times my respect and love for it, and for the originator and performer Charissa Bertels only deepened. It did get me thinking about the other pieces that fit into the most memorable category. This is long, and I do not really expect many to read it all to the end, but the recalling and writing has been interesting…

Under Charles Towers two productions, with completely opposing styles, stand out. I am not at all sure that David Mamet’s vicious and vulgar “Glengarry Glen Ross” went down well with Lowell audiences, but it did with me. At the other end of the scale was the touching and pretty musical “Daddy Long Legs”. In Sean Daniels-era “Home of the Brave” was a very funny and madcap farce but chiefly memorable to me as an introduction to the innovative cohort club. Here I not only had the wonderful opportunity to see the development of a new play as it flows from Lila Rose Kaplan‘s pen to opening night realization, but also to meet and become friends with Lila Rose, Joel, Veronika and Sean. I could also chat to my longtime ART hero Karen MacDonald. This seasons cohort experience repeated and deepened the process, most especially with Boyfriend where I hope that I can stay in contact with Ed Bell and Charissa even at long distance. I will never forget the final technical rehearsal just hours before the opening preview as Ed added the ‘money to make women obey’ lines to the Yale club scene. It made an already powerful moment even more so. Being a cohort on this production has been a profound experience, but even had I not had this opportunity and had only seen the show once on our regular subscriber night then I am sure that “My 80-Year-Old Boyfriend” and Charissa would have made it to this most memorable list.

–Tim Greenwood, Cohort

GLORIOUS PEAK by Tim Greenwood, Cohort

Three weeks ago I wrote that I was mesmerized by the first read/sing through of “My 80-Year-Old Boyfriend” at Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell. After seeing several rehearsals and a preview it came to a glorious peak at the opening last night. The energy from the incredibly talented Charissa Bertels was boundless as she sang songs from beautiful ballads to big belt them out via classical Schubert. This is while dancing tap, playing the piano, channeling Milton’s gravelly voice and even a cartwheel. You can listen to a couple of the songs on the MRT website, but don’t read the synopsis until after you have seen the show.

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Charissa Bertels in My 80-Year-Old Boyfriend. Photo by Meghan Moore.
We have been attending MRT for some 30 years and this is easily one of the very best that I can recall. Not only that, in terms of emotional resonance it stands out among the top in my fairly regular 50 years of attending the theatre. Congratulations to Charissa, Sean, Ed, Christian and all involved in bringing it here. I know that it will be huge success locally and it certainly deserves to continue on nationally.
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My 80-Year-Old Boyfriend runs through May 21.