Battle royale

A new production by Boulder’s Butterfly Effect Theatre explores systemic racism through the lens of boxing

Credit: Michael Ensminger

The worlds of sports and theater may feel distinctly separate, but Butterfly Effect Theatre of Colorado’s upcoming production of The Royale invites audiences to consider the theatricality of sports. The 2015 piece by playwright Marco Ramirez brings the boxing ring inside the theater for an action-packed drama about one boxer’s refusal to be held back by systemic racism. 

Written by the son of Cuban immigrants, the award-winning play set during the Jim Crow era is based on the true story of Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight world champion. It follows fictional boxer Jay “The Sport” Jackson, who dreams of being the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. But it’s 1905 in the racially segregated world of boxing, and white fighters refuse to give him a crack at the title. 

One day, a crooked boxing promoter proposes “the fight of the century,” presenting Jay with the opportunity to make history. “But before he can win the title, he must reckon with the responsibilities of representing his family and community as the first Black fighter to enter the white boxing world. 

The Royale uses theatricality to explore and ponder timely social tensions,” says Stephen Weitz, Butterfly Effect Theatre Company (BETC) co-founder and producing artistic director. “It also gets to the profound issues of progress, and the cost of that progress to both self and family. Ultimately, this is not about boxing — it is about family and community.”

After a pandemic-induced postponement during the 2020-2021 season, The Royale opened last weekend at the Dairy Arts Center’s Carsen Theater in Boulder, with a scheduled run through Nov. 19.  The production is directed by Jada Suzanne Dixon, artistic director of Curious Theatre Company and a frequent BETC collaborator. Weitz discovered the play a year before the shutdown and immediately thought of Dixon as the director, so he sent it to her to read. 

“I thought it was stunning,” Dixon says, noting the play’s rhythmic language and poignant themes about the brutality of the human experience. “I loved right away that the playwright used boxing as a metaphor for life.”

Credit: Michael Ensminger

In fighting shape

Dixon was the first to join the production team and, according to Weitz, has been instrumental in guiding the show’s evolution. Because of their organization’s mission to foster an inclusive environment for artists, BETC sought to have as many people of color on the production team as possible. The company had already assembled the cast and crew when they learned that the production would have to be delayed due to COVID-19. This setback forced BETC to make adjustments to the crew, swap roles among cast members, and hold another round of auditions. 

Lavour Addison was originally cast in a supporting role as a character named Fish, but was offered the central role of the history-making heavyweight after the departure of a cast member. He and Dixon had previously worked together at the Arvada Center on Lydia Diamond’s 2006 comedy-drama Stick Fly. So, when Dixon asked him to audition early in the process, he agreed.

“Jada is a fantastic director who knows how to communicate with an actor without making them feel inferior,” he says. 

As a Black actor, Addison says he says he is constantly navigating thorny issues of representation onstage. He was ecstatic to be given the opportunity to play Jay, one of his dream roles, which he had unsuccessfully auditioned for in graduate school. His previous experience trying out for the role offered a stark reminder of the challenges facing actors of color.

“I was told I wasn’t big enough and Black enough for the role,” Addison says. 

But having landed the part in the new BETC production, the next step was getting in shape — so he began training like a boxer. His workout consisted of four-mile runs followed by punching-bag work. Addison also spent a lot of time watching boxing and footwork videos. He was particularly inspired by the style of former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson. 

“If you watch his videos, he’s electric in the ring,” Addison says. “I would pay attention to the power and speed of his punches, and I wanted to emulate that so that the audience felt engaged not only in the theatrical performance but also in the competitive arena of sports.” 

Early in the rehearsal process, BETC sent the cast to Front Range Boxing Academy in Boulder to train with real instructors. Dixon emphasized the importance of the actor’s physicality and asked them to consider “how the ensemble would collectively navigate the space.” The small size of the theater made it ideal for a boxing ring. Audience members in the front row will have ringside seating, but this proximity also requires extraordinary focus and intentionality from the five-person cast. 

“I want people to talk about what they experienced after they leave the theater,” Dixon says. “It’s about more than just entertainment; it’s about the connection you feel in the room.” 

Similarly, Addison says he’s looking forward to finally being able to share his work with audiences. “Sometimes as an actor, you feel like you’re always waiting,” he says. “I auditioned for this early in the pandemic, and I’m just excited to share this story with an audience.” 

Even though COVID continues to cause disruptions throughout the world, BETC is eager to welcome theatergoers back with their production of The Royale

“It’s a critical time in the art world,” Weitz says. “And the arts organizations that you support, BETC or other organizations, need people to come back and support them now.”

ON STAGE: Butterfly Effect Theatre Company presents The Royale. Various times through Nov. 19, Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder. Tickets here.

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