This week’s Wednesday matinee of The Royale marked a first for me: I’d never attended a student performance in the Mitzi E. Newhouse. I’m used to the high-energy behavior of teenagers in the much larger surroundings of the Vivian Beaumont, and their responsiveness in the more intimate Newhouse felt especially electric. None of their keen attentiveness was a surprise: The Royale is about boxing, and even though the punches are stylized there is still a visceral atmosphere created by a very physical sporting event.
This week’s performance was one of three organized by LCT’s Open Stages High School Program. High-school students take part in four pre-show and/or post-show workshops. Among their activities: they are given the chance to act out a scene from the play, and they learn about the historical context and real-life inspiration (the early-20th-century boxing champion Jack Johnson) behind the drama.
At the Newhouse matinee were New York City students from Marble Hill High School for International Studies, the High School for Environmental Studies, and the High School for Health Professions and Human Services. At the talk-back, the teenagers had a chance to pose questions to McKinley Belcher III, who plays Fish; Khris Davis, who is Jay “The Sport” Jackson; and John Lavelle, who plays Max.
One student asked the actors how they prepared for their roles. Belcher talked about acclimating himself to the fundamentals of boxing. Davis said he watched footage of Jack Johnson’s fights. Lavelle explained that he read everything he could about the time period – between 1905 and 1910.
Another student asked if the play would have been strengthened if the boxing had been real rather than stylized. Belcher responded, “If the boxing were literal, you wouldn’t have had a chance to hear what was going on inside our heads.” He added: “Boxing onstage – as opposed to on television or in the movies – can be real hokey.”
The final talkback question came from a student who had written down a thoughtful, multi-part inquiry and read it to the assembled. It touched on issues of history and racism and ended with the student wondering: How has this play changed your outlook on life?
Davis said that doing the play gave him insight into the parallels between early-20th-century America and early-21st-century America. “I could see a line between people then who didn’t see pictures of themselves in advertisements and people now who don’t see enough people like themselves on TV.” Belcher echoed that sentiment: “As an artist, I have a platform, and it’s important to use it partly to make sure you see representations of people who look like us.” Lavelle had the last word: “This production tells a story that needs to be told. I feel blessed that I got to contribute to it.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.