Q&A: Marco Ramirez

Marco RamirezMarco Ramirez has had plays produced at Lincoln Center (Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle nominations), The Kennedy Center (Helen Hayes nomination), and more. His TV credits also include The Defenders, Daredevil, Fear the Walking Dead, and Orange is the New Black.

What does a play about boxing bring to the table, that a play about a different sport wouldn’t be able to?

Boxing isn’t a team sport like basketball or football, so boxing stories aren’t ultimately about the inner dynamics of people working well together. Boxing tends to be more singular than that. It’s about what one person is willing to do, or how far one person is willing to go. Of course, boxing stories are populated with many other characters – loved ones, trainers – but when it’s time to fight, there are only two people in that ring, and when the dust settles, only one person will be the victor.

When did you decide that the fights should be stylized, rather than going for realism?

Early on, I knew I wanted to use this direct-address language-only approach to the fights for two reasons. First, no matter how good the fight choreography might be, boxing onstage almost always looks fake to me. It’s a sport about subtle movements. A dance, where the athletes are responding to their opponent’s every movement. It’s hard to describe, but like good Jazz or good freestyle Hip Hop, I think we can tell when it’s not truly improvised. Second, I thought this direct-address approach with intercut language would give me an opportunity to dig into the boxers’ brains, to move beyond the “technique” of what’s going on in their heads and get to the “heart” of what brought them to the ring in the first place.

The play has a sort of rhythm that ebbs and flows, with claps, punches, breathing, shouting. How did you land there?

Similar to the stylized fights, I knew early on that this play would require rhythm. Boxing itself is such a percussive sport – between the punches themselves, the shouts from the trainers, the ding of the bell – it just felt natural to incorporate rhythm into the play. And while writing, this idea emerged in my head that Jack Johnson (or in my play, Jay Jackson) was kind of the man who invented what we’d call Hip Hop swagger today – so the percussion only started to highlight that. He’s a boxer as much as he’s the first ever Hip Hop Emcee.

Jack Johnson & Jim Jeffries Boxing
The fight that inspired The Royale: James Jeffries vs. Jack Johnson, 1910.

How closely did you stick to the actual history of the 1910 Jack Johnson/James Jeffries match? Any interesting tidbits of research that made their way into the script?

I took dramatic license, which is why I changed Jack Johson’s name in the first place. I didn’t want to be presenting a false history, so I made it my own. In terms of research, I mostly remember things I left out in order to tell the best possible story. The way radio was used, for example, was completely different in real life, but for my story (which already presented radio-play soundscapes), it felt like a piece of logic worth stretching.

What have been some surprising or delightful things about seeing this work staged?

My favorite thing to do in this play is watch the way audiences react to the final scene. I’ve been lucky to work with so many talented directors along the way, and the manner in which they stage that final fight – you’d swear the audience was watching an actual boxing match.

Why do you write for the stage?

Because it’s one of the last places you can get people to believe in magic.

The Royale runs at Merrimack Repertory Theatre September 13 – October 8. http://www.mrt.org/Royale