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LIKE The Gift, currently playing at Theatre Royal Stratford East, Marco Ramirez’s play offers a thoughtful and necessary engagement with black history.
Set in the first decade of the 20th century, The Royale’s focus is US boxer Jack Johnson, the “negro” world heavyweight champion.
But while he might be the best boxer at his weight on the planet, he can’t fight for the title because the reigning heavyweight champion won’t get into the ring with a black man.
When the bout eventually materialises, Johnson is ready to step up and represent black America.
But the arrival of his sister Nina forces him to confront the cost of victory. Will it improve America’s racial politics or should he lose the fight because, as his sister warns: “Somewhere close there’s a nervous hand flirting with the grip of a knife.”
White violence in the face of black achievement has tragic consequences in the play, given a well-paced and inventively staged production by Ameera Conrad which cleverly draws out the rhythms and musicality of Marco Ramirez’s text.
The performers are all final-year acting degree students at Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the ensemble, collectively and individually strong, are led by Shaka Kalokoh as Johnson.
He gives a strong central performance, tempering the boxer’s physicality with his thoughtfulness, while Emanuel Vuso as Fish, Johnson’s sparing partner, is a particularly charismatic presence and his excitement for Johnson’s big fight is infectious.
As Nina, Anele Mahamba injects a vital energy into proceedings and Cory Hippolyte and Brandon Bassir also impress.
Runs until February 13, box office: barbican.org.uk
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