With every major victory comes defeat. In The Royale, protagonist Jay Jackson, inspired by African American heavy-weight champion Jack Johnson, defeats Jim Jeffries in “the fight of the century.” However, he has opened the door for race riots that his sister, Nina, warned him about. Lolita Marie plays Nina in this co-production of The Royale and I wanted to learn about her preparation for this role and the impact this story has on 21st century audiences.
1. As this play is based on the life of Jack Johnson and the fight of the century, was your research process and preparation for this role more extensive? How did you build this character?
Much of my research revolved around Jack Johnson. I do not believe Marco Ramirez truly intended Nina to mimic any of Johnson’s actual sisters (he was the third of nine children and the first boy). Instead, I believe his goal was that she embody the fear that some African Americans had for how the inevitable repercussions of his success would impact their lives and their community. She also speaks, albeit very briefly and only in passing on the disdain that African American women, in particular, felt about his propensity for white women. So, versus studying any particular woman, Nina was created from my understanding of the world at the time of The Royale. My resources included the following books, Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner by Theresa Runstedtler, My Life in the Ring and Out by Jack Johnson, The Sweet Science by A. J. Liebling, and Unforgivable Blackness by Geoffrey C. Ward. Ironically, my mother had gifted me the PBS documentary Unforgivable Blackness years ago, so I re-watched it and added The Great White Hope to my collection as well. Each of these resources (along with a few others provided by Paige Hernandez's awesome team), impressed upon me the sheer magnitude of Jack Johnson’s global reach and cultural influence. I understood how Johnson’s impact fueled the awe, respect, fear, and admiration that both whites and blacks had for him. And, finally I could appreciate the type of man that he had to have been to have the audacity to live life on his own terms. Understanding all of that helped me determine what kind of personality Nina would have to have been to be an influencer in the life of The Royale’s Jay Jackson.
2. Does the story of Jack Johnson resonate in today's world? Can you identify individuals who have a similar impact as Jack Johnson?
The play, The Royale, is relevant as it takes historical fact and makes it universal so that it could easily be the story of anyone engaged in broad-reaching athletic activism such as Serena Williams or Colin Kaepernick. However, when you harken back to Jack Johnson’s actual story, the closest we have to the cultural influence and media sensation that his win generated nationally and internationally, is President Barack Obama and our current President. Just like the Jack Johnson World Heavyweight Champion win, both elections influenced the way the world viewed our country. Both elections reflected and ultimately influenced how America viewed minorities, and how minorities understood their place in the American culture. Both elections were in their own way politically, socially, and culturally polarizing, highlighting drastically different views across different segments of the American population.
3. What line(s) in the script resonate the most with you and why?
My favorite line is Wynton’s. I’m paraphrasing but basically he says, “I will be there with you no matter if you have to be dragged out of the ring or if the crowd is cheering your name. But no matter what happens, whatever you choose to do is your decision and you do it alone.” It’s so true! We can be surrounded by people who love and support us, but at the end of the day, the person that you truly are is defined when no one is looking. What type of ethics and morals do you have then? Are you honest with yourself about yourself? You are the only person that you have some semblance of control over and you really are the only person that you will live…and die with come what may. Jack Johnson seemed to fight hardest just to be himself and perhaps his lesson to us is that that is a war worth waging.
Interesting side notes – Until the 1920s women were barred from attending boxing matches. They were known to dress up as men to sneak in. So, in The Royale when Max announces that there are women in the audience, historically speaking that by itself would’ve been a newsworthy event regardless of who won the fight!
For jazz aficionados - Miles Davis has an album dedicated to Jack Johnson entitled - A Tribute to Jack Johnson.