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
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.
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