‘The Royale’ packs a punch with top performances

Bernard Gilbert as Fish and Akron Lanier Watson as “The Sport” in The Royale at the Rep.
Bernard Gilbert as Fish and Akron Lanier Watson as “The Sport” in The Royale at the Rep. Jon Gitchoff

A fascinating rhythm begins “The Royale,” at Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in Webster Groves, Missouri, and for the next 90 minutes you are riveted. With innovative staging and top-of-the-game performances, it’s one of the best shows of the year.

The compelling drama by Marco Ramirez is loosely based on the 1910 World Heavyweight Championship, dubbed the ‘Fight of the Century,” which pitted Jim Jeffries, aka The Great White Hope, against challenger Jack Johnson.

It doesn’t matter whether you don’t know the difference between an upper cut and a bolo punch. As in all boxing stories, like “Rocky” and “Raging Bull,” it’s not just about the sport.

Ramirez, who has written for the TV series “Orange is the New Black,” “Daredevil” and “Sons of Anarchy,” cuts right to the chase, immersing us in Jim Crowe America.

Rising star Jay “The Sport” Jackson is a dominant force in the ring, but society’s harsh realities make him work twice as hard to get ahead. He wants victory against all odds, and while he’s in superb physical condition, he has to let all the other distractions go.

In a bracing, fierce performance, Akron Lanier Wilson makes a stunning Rep debut. Recently in “The Color Purple” revival on Broadway, Wilson’s energy and charisma fills the black box theatre. He’s unforgettable.

The supporting cast is top shelf, too. Lance Baker has crafted an unmistakable cadence as the ring announcer and fills the role of Max, The Sport’s manager, comfortably.

Natural, organic performances are delivered by Samuel Ray Gates as trainer Wynton, Bernard Gilbert as Fish and Bria Walker as Jackson’s sister Nina.

Webster students Maalik Shakoor and Jarris Williams round out the electric ensemble.

Stuart Carden’s ingenious direction, combined with Stephanie Paul’s astonishing body percussion and choreography, makes this a fresh, invigorating work that excels in every aspect.

On the sparse set, Carden has masterfully filled the room with energy, physicality, hope and desperation.

The technical elements, including Sidney Bembridge’s scenic and lighting design and Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design, enhance this truly one-of-a-kind, extraordinary production.

‘The Royale’

Now through Sunday, March 26

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Studio Theatre

130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves