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Is White Backlash the Price of Progress in Racial Equality?

‘The Royale’ starring David St. Louis at the Milwaukee Rep

Sep. 20, 2016
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Photo by Craig Schwartz

There are many plays about social justice, honoring the sacrifices of men and women in the movement toward equal opportunity in America. But in The Royale, playwright Marco Ramirez raises an aspect of racism rarely addressed on stage: the price paid for such progress in terms of the backlash that follows.

Ramirez draws on the true story of black boxer Jack Johnson who defeated the white Tommy Burns in 1908 to become the first African American world heavyweight champion. Ramirez’s subject is racism, not boxing—hence the script’s shift from biography to poetic invention—but the hyper-masculine imagery of boxing intensifies the stakes. Can a black man defeat a white man in a battle of strength, wit and endurance without repercussions in 1908? What are the benefits and costs of such audacity, not just for Johnson and his family but for African Americans nationwide? How many will hang from trees as a result? And how does that reverberate in 2016?

Actor David St. Louis created the Johnson role, here called Jay Jackson, in the play’s 2013 world premiere in Los Angeles. He returns to it in the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s new production of The Royale under Kevin Ramsey’s direction. Acclaimed productions have appeared in New York, London, Chicago, Miami and other cities and Ramirez, a writer and producer for such popular television series as “Orange Is the New Black,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Daredevil” and “Da Vinci’s Demons,” has revised his script to a tight, intensely rhythmic 75 minutes of surprise upon surprise. The stylized fight scenes that open and close the play are exciting theatrical conceptions. It should be a knockout.

St. Louis talked about revisiting the role he created three years ago. “It’s a show that rhythm is written into,” he says. “This production has different rhythms than the first version because a different director’s sensibility is guiding it. So it has a different life. Plus, although things have always been going on nationally in regards to race relations, what’s new is the light that’s being shed on it now. It makes the play extremely relevant and poignant and powerful. It makes me as an actor want to say more with my work because there’s an ear for the message. There’s always been a need for the message but now it’s actually in people’s radar.” 

Asked if he sees any relationship with “birtherism” and other irrational and virulent responses to the election of our first black president, he answers, “I can’t tell you how shocked I was that Obama made it through his first term alive. Honestly, you look at Jack Johnson in the early 1900s and you see someone who, in spite of death threats, looked people in the face and moved forward—a man you’d expect to see lynched, who was arrested without evidence for driving his white fiancé across state lines. You can compare that to the struggle today with people wanting to matter, to be equal, and the consequences that we see in the streets. It’s a call for eyes to be opened, a call for change and it also needs to be a call for acceptance and love. There’s never a time when we don’t need to keep our eye on the ball because humans tend to be greedy. As much as we evolve, the problems are the same. Unless we stay vigilant we’ll fall back into the patterns of history.”

Born in Washington, D.C., St. Louis won a scholarship to Oberlin Conservatory to study classical voice. Seeing a theater performance at Howard University in his hometown convinced him to switch schools and majors. At Howard, he took every opportunity to work professionally, acquiring membership in SAG-AFTRA and Equity along with his BFA in theater. He spent a year touring Canada in Rent and landed on Broadway in The Scarlett Pimpernel, the first of his five Broadway appearances including recent revivals of Rent and Side Show. Along the way, he learned to box professionally.

“Before I came to Milwaukee, I heard through the news that the city was a hotbed for racial tension. So to come and find that the Rep has three shows headlined by African Americans at this time was surprising and a breath of fresh air for me. It’s never that way anywhere, in any city. I’m used to seeing audition notices around February, Black History Month. Oh, I can work this month?” Then sounding like his character, he adds, “I want to work as a man, not necessarily as a black man. I want to be able to be the doctor or the lawyer or the farmer that’s the lead. I want to see the day when I can be cast in any role because of the human condition, not because of the black condition.” 

The Royale runs Sept. 28-Nov. 6 at the Rep’s Stiemke Studio, 108 E. Wells St. For tickets call 414-224-9490, visit milwaukeerep.com or stop by the box office during business hours.

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