Khris Davis, who plays the champion boxer Jay Jackson in The Royale, prepared for the role by doing research into its real-life inspiration: Jack Johnson. “I learned a lot,” he told me the other day as we sat in the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater after a matinee, “but in the end I’ve found that the scenario onstage is much more personal than anything in a documentary or newspaper clipping.”
His assignment, Davis said, involves conveying the emotional life that isn’t always there in the research materials. “Onstage, I have to show excitement, anger, joy, pain – all the things that connect us today to the story of someone who lived a hundred years ago.”
To illustrate the point, Davis mentions the machine in The Royale that plays recorded music. “It isn’t very sophisticated,” he said, “but it awakens something in Jackson.” He added: “It makes me think of how I felt when I got my first iPod. I was so excited – I couldn’t believe that so much music could be contained in such a little device. I felt that about my first Walkman, too.”
Those early forays into music took place when Davis grew up in Camden, New Jersey, and in Ohio, where his family moved when he was 8. “I wanted to act even when I was a child,” he said. “My mother would write skits for me to perform at church.” Davis returned to Camden as a teenager, to spend two years at a creative-arts high school. “My first role was Othello, when I was a junior.”
After earning a degree in theater from Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, Davis and some friends founded the Quintessence Theatre Group, whose mission is “to build a progressive, classic, repertory, ensemble theatre for 21st-century Philadelphia.”
For the ensemble of The Royale, Davis is full of praise. “It’s been incredible to be part of this group,” he said. “It seemed as if everybody had jet packs on their backs, and we all started to fly from Day One.” Such trust, he added, is essential given the nature of the piece. “It’s a muscular piece, with very specific rhythms. If you veer off the beat, it can be tricky to get back on track. You have to be working with people you trust to keep it all in place.”
As for the drama itself, Davis said, “I see it as the story of an individual standing up to adversity – the challenge of dealing with opponents in the boxing ring and dealing with his inner demons.” He added: “I think what helps him withstand the pressure is a fierce desire to be recognized as one of the greats.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.