Lantern Theater Company continues its 2022/23 season with the Philadelphia premiere of The Royale by award-winning American playwright Marco Ramirez. Philadelphia theater artist Zuhairah McGill makes her Lantern directorial debut, leading an ensemble cast of Philadelphia actors that includes Phillip Brown, Morgan Charéce Hall, Gregory Isaac, Brian Anthony Wilson, and Kahlil A. Wyatt. The Royale runs Thursday, November 10 through Sunday, December 11, 2022, at St. Stephen’s Theater, the Lantern’s resident venue. To ensure a safe and comfortable theater experience, everyone other than the actors on stage are required to wear properly fitted masks while attending The Royale.
Hailed as “riveting,” “original and graceful,” and “gripping” by Variety, The New York Times, and the Chicago Tribune, respectively, The Royale takes inspiration from the life of Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight world boxing champion. Marco Ramirez’s drama is filled with the rhythms of the ring and of the people fighting for freedom, dignity, and success in a fascinating and important chapter in our national story.
Set in the early 1900s, boxer Jay “The Sport” Jackson is the Negro Heavyweight Champion in a segregated world. “So good at the sport that they call him ‘The Sport,’” Jackson dreams of becoming the unquestioned heavyweight champion of the world. His fight promoter, Max, is able to organize “the fight of the century” between Jay and Bixby, the reigning white heavyweight champion – on the condition that Jay allows Bixby to collect 90 percent of the purse, win or lose. But just before the match, Jay’s sister Nina visits him to express her fear of the dangers that their community will face if he wins: “I think you’re so caught up in playing David to Goliath, in being the one fish swimming upstream, I think you up and forgot about the rest of us, the ones ain’t as strong as you.” Jay is forced to confront his desire to break barriers in the ring – and the external consequences that he and his community will surely face if he does. The Royale’s inventive staging resonantly connects the personal and political while exploring powerful tensions between opportunity and inequality.
“Marco Ramirez has created a powerful and moving story of personal triumph that turns the country on its head,” said Lantern Artistic Director Charles McMahon. “Loosely based on the story of the great Jack Johnson, The Royale takes us back to a pivotal moment in the struggle of Black Americans for respect and the full rights of citizenship.”
“This play means so much to me as a director because I am a fighter just like Jack Johnson was,” said Zuhairah McGill, who directs the Lantern’s production. “But more than that it’s not just me, but all African Americans who are still in the ring fighting. At the height of the Jim Crow Era, this man was able to rise above it all, they say. But I say: We are in The New Jim Crow. Jack Johnson insisted on being free, and in 2022 we are still insisting.”
“Even beyond being a boxer, Johnson is remembered for being a guy who pushed boundaries,” Marco Ramirez said of his play. “His true legacy isn’t just an athletic one, it’s cultural. It was shocking, how relevant his persona was to the 21st century. Many of the people in this country still struggle when cultural icons make declarations that seem ‘too political’ for the personas they’ve created as artists or athletes. Just consider the responses to Beyoncé’s overtly political halftime performance at the 2016 Superbowl… They love her music when it’s all fun and games. They don’t when she asks them to confront systematic racism. It’s weirdly the same conversation people had around Jack Johnson… There are so many boxer stories about whether the boxer can win the fight. In the world of theater, it is more of a moral and ethical question about whether he should win the fight.” Originally produced by Center Theatre Group in 2013 and Lincoln Center Theater in 2016, The Royale went on to win an Outer Critics Circle’s John Gassner Playwriting Award and multiple Drama Desk Award nominations.
Lantern Theater Company will delve deeper into the themes of The Royale on its Lantern Searchlight blog, available online at lanterntheater.org/searchlight. Articles will be published throughout the production’s run, exploring the play’s historical context, the history of Jack Johnson and the sport of boxing, behind the scenes interviews with the artists, and more.
Tickets for The Royale are $25 – $42 and are available online at www.lanterntheater.org or by calling the Lantern Box Office at (215) 829-0395. Discounts are available for students, seniors 65 and up, U.S. military personnel, and groups of 10 or more. Performances of The Royale will take place at St. Stephen’s Theater, located at 923 Ludlow Street in Center City Philadelphia. During the 2022/23 season, the Lantern will announce updated health and safety guidelines 30 days prior to the start of each production. For The Royale, everyone other than the actors on stage must wear properly fitted masks at all times in all parts of the Lantern performance venue, including the lobby, performance space, restrooms, and stairwells. More detailed information is available at lanterntheater.org/health-and-safety.
About the Artists
Marco Ramirez is an award-winning American playwright and television writer/producer. His plays have been produced at Lincoln Center Theater, The Kennedy Center, The Old Globe, Center Theatre Group, The Juilliard School, London’s Bush Theatre, and Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival of New American Plays, where he has twice received the Heideman Award. Other honors include the Outer Critics Circle’s John Gassner Playwriting Award for The Royale, Juilliard’s Lila Acheson Wallace Playwriting Fellowship, Lincoln Center’s Le Comte du Nouy Award, Theatre Communication Group’s Edgerton Foundation New Play Award, and Helen Hayes and Drama Desk nominations. As a WGA and Emmy-nominated television writer, he has written for numerous hit shows including FX’s Sons of Anarchy, AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead, and Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, Daredevil, and The Defenders. Ramirez trained at New York University and The Juilliard School.
Philadelphia-based director, actress, and producer Zuhairah McGill makes her Lantern directorial debut with The Royale. McGill is founder and producing artistic director of First World Theatre Ensemble, where she has directed productions of For Colored Girls, The Cooling Board, Long Time Since Yesterday, Survival Strategies: A Tale of Faith, Usher’s, and Eubie. Other theater credits include acting and directing work with Arden Theatre Company, Quintessence Theatre Group, Hedgerow Theatre, Westside Theatre, ATA Theatre, Sante Fe Playhouse, National Black Theatre, Pulse Ensemble Theatre, Steel River Playhouse, and the 2022 National Black Theatre Festival, where she was invited to perform her one-woman show, Sojourner. Part of the Barrymore Award-winning ensemble in Arden Theatre Company’s Gem of the Ocean, McGill has also received the Black Arts for Social Change Award, DC Excellence in Black Theatre Award, and Most Distinguished Director Award.
The ensemble cast of The Royale includes Phillip Brown as Jay “The Sport” Jackson (Lantern debut; theater credits include Quintessence Theatre Group, Walnut Street Theatre, actor/writer/coach for several Disney television shows, director of theater for The Shipley School in Bryn Mawr); Morgan Charéce Hall as Jay’s big sister, Nina (Travesties and A Man for All Seasons at the Lantern); Gregory Isaac as Jay’s fight promoter, Max (Travesties, A Man for All Seasons, The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens & Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord, many others); Brian Anthony Wilson as Jay’s longtime trainer, Wynton (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui); and Kahlil A. Wyatt as Fish, an up-and-coming boxer who becomes Jay’s sparring partner (Lantern debut).
The creative team includes a talented group of theater artists making their Lantern debuts: scenic and lighting designer Will Lowry, costume designer Ali Turns, and sound designer Jairous L. Parker. The team also includes Simon “One Punch” Carr as boxing/movement consultant, Dr. Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon as production dramaturgy consultant, stage manager Rebecca Smith, and assistant director Zaria Leonard-White.
About Lantern Theater Company
Founded in 1994 and continuing its 29th season with The Royale by Marco Ramirez, Lantern Theater Company’s mission is to produce plays that investigate and illuminate what is essential in the human spirit and the spirit of the times. The Lantern serves the Greater Philadelphia region with award-winning productions and education programming, notably partnering with middle schools and high schools in the Philadelphia School District to provide in-classroom residencies in support of curricular learning. The Lantern became a national leader in streaming theater during the Covid-19 health crisis, producing ten fully designed plays that were created and filmed in the company’s resident home at St. Stephen’s Theater, garnering coverage in national media including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and reaching more than 30,000 patrons in 15 countries and all 50 states.
Following The Royale, the Lantern’s 2022/23 season will continue with its original production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol by Anthony Lawton in collaboration with Christopher Colucci and Thom Weaver, the Philadelphia premiere of The Lifespan of a Fact by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell, directed by Matt Pfeiffer, and Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare, directed by Charles McMahon. More information is available online at www.lanterntheater.org.