GableStage's The Royale Brings a Local Superstar Back Home

When The Royale begins, Jay, a heavyweight champion boxer, and Fish, his amateur opponent, line up next to each other. Spotlights shine on both, leaving the rest of the sparse set in the dark. But instead of squaring off against each other in the ring, the two stare straight at the audience.

Jay and Fish jab and uppercut into the air, so their punches never actually land. The two spit, mumble, and chant to themselves. "Don't lock. Stay focused. You got this," one says. It invites audiences into the boxers' minds.

"Any time I see fight choreography onstage, I can't help but think it always looks phony," playwright Marco Ramirez says. "I knew I wanted to do this thing of abstracting the fight, almost like it's the Guernica of the boxing match."

The Miami-born screenwriter and playwright re-creates the action of an early 1900s boxing match in the play, which opens this week at GableStage. It's a not-exactly-factual take on the life of boxer Jack Johnson, who was a world heavyweight champion in 1910. The five-person play buzzes,stomps, and claps its way through the sights and sounds of the ring. Imagination and seemingly improvised punches beat out cheesy fight choreography.

This clever minimalism earned The Royale positive reviews in Los Angeles after its world premiere May 5, 2013, as well as in London last year. In Chicago, the play garnered a nomination in the local 2015 Equity Jeff Awards for sound design. And most recently, it was a New York Times Critics' Pick as an off-Broadway production.

Ramirez, who now lives in Los Angeles, has become a major player in both the theater and the Hollywood scene since growing up in Miami. Besides writing what has become an internationally successful play, he has penned scripts for TV shows such as Orange Is the New Black and Sons of Anarchy. He currently works as executive producer of the Netflix series Daredevil and was recently confirmed as one of the executive producers of the next season of The Defenders.

He was born in Hialeah, a place he jokingly describes to friends as "the Spanish Harlem of Miami." The oldest child of two Cuban immigrants, he credits some of his initial interest in storytelling to his family's history. "My grandparents, when they both left [the island] in the late '50s, early '60s, they left without much," he says. "All they really had was the idea and the tradition of oral storytelling... All they had were stories."

Ramirez's younger sister Mayleen Williams, who now lives in Homestead and teaches at Somerset Academy South Homestead, says both kids' love of drama "started with our mom. Her advisor pushed her into drama in sixth grade, so she pushed us and encouraged us to do artsy things."

Throughout their childhood, Marco and Mayleen lived in South America, traveling with their father as he consulted and helped open new branches of the U.S.-based marketing company Amway. They spent time in Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. Williams remembers that by fifth or sixth grade, "Marco hated it with a passion!" The other students teased them for being foreigners, and though Williams calls herself "a complete social butterfly," she saw her brother retreat into himself and his books.

After returning to Miami in time to start seventh grade, Marco continued to surround himself with stories. "I was the kid in Hialeah with comics in his backpack," he says with boundless childlike energy still intact. "Everyone around me was much more interested in baseball or other extracurricular stuff or cars or girls."

Though he read and enjoyed Daredevil comics growing up, Ramirez still pledges his superhero allegiance to Batman. In particular, the animated TV series and The X-Files made him love television.

In high school, at Coral Reef Senior, theater teacher Ana Mederos-Blanco — "We called her Queeny," Williams recalls with a deferential chuckle — encouraged Marco's artistry, coaxing him out of set painting and building and onto the stage.

In tenth grade, Marco even visited GableStage, the tiny 150-seat theater nestled in a wing of the Biltmore hotel's grand property, to watch a performance of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.

Neither of the Ramirez kids was into sports. "I don't know where Marco gets this boxing thing from!" Williams exclaims with an air of faux-exasperation. "I have no idea how he's writing about boxing!"

And that's the biggest secret of The Royale: Even though it begins and ends with a fight, it's not really about what happens inside the ring. "It begins as a play about boxing, and it becomes a play about home," Ramirez says. "So the thing I'm most excited about is to have my family come see our show in Miami and for them to know that I haven't forgotten home."

The plot of The Royale, which becomes clear after that opening fight, focuses on African-American prizefighter Jay "The Sport" Jackson, who is roughly modeled on the great pugilist Jack Johnson. Set in the early 20th Century, the action has him fighting for fame, for money, and — eventually, as audiences discover — for the amelioration of racial tension.

Around 1905, Jackson's handlers set him up to fight white heavyweight champion Bernard "The Champ" Bixby. It was, according to Ramirez's script, "the biggest fight in history!... Not in black history, not in white history, either... In something better — in sports history!"

In fact, it was Jackson in the script who persuaded his managers to agree to the insulting and racially discriminatory deal: Bixby would earn 90 percent of the purse, no matter who won.

We won't spoil the ending by describing what happens, but Jackson's sister Nina, the play's lone female character, performs a major role. That sibling dynamic parallels the playwright's own. But Ramirez didn't realize it while writing. In fact, it was Mario Almeida, a colleague who Ramirez lightheartedly describes as "a Hollywood-exec type now but a Miami boy as well," who spotted the connection during a production at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles.

"On opening night, [Mario] came to me and said, 'You take your sister everywhere you go. She's always with you,' '' Ramirez recalls. "It was really a touching moment that changed the way I looked at this play forever."

Williams admits she has cried every time she has seen the play — in San Diego, Los Angeles, New York — and says she will probably well up again when she watches it at home in Miami.

"I think there's a consistent theme about family," she says of her brother's published and produced works. "It means the world to him."

That's why Ramirez is so excited to return home. His sister says all of the local relatives — including their abuela and abuelo, great-uncles, and others — are planning a brunch or similar get-together. While "the younger, hipper aunts" have been able to travel to performances, Williams says, other family members have not. In particular, she says, "I'm really excited for my grandfather. He had a double hip surgery and can't really travel that well... He loves sports. His thing is baseball. He understands all sports."

What his grandfather will experience is a play about race and fame seen through the lens of sports. In the play, a reporter asks Jackson before the big fight: "How does your family feel about your meteoric rise to fame?"

After a few words, Jackson responds, "To be perfectly honest, y'all ain't seen nothing, yet."

In real life, Jack Johnson indeed became more famous than any other boxer before him, and in The Royale, Jay Jackson earns his championship title.

It's hard not to hope that's what the future holds for Ramirez too.

The Royale
Various showtimes May 28 through June 26 Thursdays through Sundays at GableStage, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables. Tickets cost $45 to $60. Call 305-445-1119 or visit gablestage.org.

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