Smile Politely

U of I alum Tyrone Phillips directs The Royale

Theater stage dressed as a boxing ring, with a silhouetted crowd in the background. In the foreground are two Black men dressed as early 1900s boxers and a white man as the referee; he holds a red megaphone. Corrupt boxing promoter Max (David Stasevsky, center) engages Jay (Jaylon Muchison, right) and sparring partner Fish (Jamal Turner, left).
Darrell Hoemann

Marco Ramirez’s The Royale, loosely based on the life of Black heavyweight champion boxer Jack Johnson, tells the story of Jay “The Sport” Jackson, a Black boxer. Jackson is slated to fight a white boxer, but it’s the early 1900s and racial tensions run high. What will the repercussions be for Black people if Jackson defeats the Black boxer? What are the repercussions for him personally, and for his relationships with friends and family? What has changed in the last century?

Tyrone Phillips is directing The Royale, currently at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts through Saturday, March 4th. Phillips is a 2012 graduate of the University of Illinois Theatre program, and Founder and Artistic Director of the Chicago-based Definition Theatre. I recently corresponded with him about the play. You can read our interview below, but in the meantime, get tickets for the show tonight, Friday, March 3rd, or for Saturday, March 4th.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tyrone Phillips pictured in the center of the image, standing in front of a stone fireplace. Phillips is a Black man wearing a black suit, white shirt, and black tie. He has a blue and orange University of Illinois  medal/pendant around his neck and he is holding a glass award with the University of Illinois emblem on it. He is smiling and looking directly into the camera.
Tyrone M. Phillips on Instagram

Smile Politely: How did you come to direct this play, The Royale, here at KCPA?

Tyrone Phillips: I was invited by Lisa Dixon, producer for Illinois Theatre, to direct this powerful play at my alma mater. I am grateful that I had the time to return and connect with the current faculty and students where I learned how to be an artist.

SP: Tell me a little about your relationship to the play. What is most compelling about this material?

Phillips: As I began to read the first few pages of The Royale I fell in love with the story and its theatricality immediately. The play has many of the qualities that I believe makes great theater: it was dynamically written with musicality, rhythmic expression, and movement imbedded in the piece. Marco Ramirez, the playwright, also took creative liberties in the telling of the story of Jack Johnson that I was excited to explore. Once I started my research on Johnson and learned the trials and tribulations of his life, I was hooked. 

SP: What do you hope audiences take away from it?

Phillips: I hope each and every audience member walks away honoring the life and legacy of the forgotten hero Jack Johnson, and are inspired to push the needle of equity and inclusion forward in their own lives. I want them to examine how far we have or have not come as a society since 1905 and identify what is halting progress. 

SP: After you finished your undergraduate degree, you founded Definition Theatre in Chicago. Can you tell me a little bit about that process?

Phillips: Definition Theatre was founded in 2012 out of a passion project which was a production of The Brothers Size by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Julian Parker and I were looking for an opportunity to put all of our learning from the theater department together and wanted to focus on a story that would resonate with our community. As we were putting together our design team for the project, we realized the creative industry was missing people of color in the technical positions behind the scenes, on staffs, and on the boards of most theaters in Chicago. We quickly learned that was the case nationwide and so we created an ensemble of artists who would prioritize equity in our industry, in their personal careers, and as a collective. Our mission was to change perspectives through art and we’ve been doing so ever since.

SP: What have been some of the most rewarding and most frustrating moments of doing that work?

Phillips: Becoming an artist takes a lot of time, [especially] when it comes to examining who you are and what contribution you want to make to the world. I am most grateful that I have been able to find my voice as an artist and make real change in my hometown of Chicago. Right now, the biggest challenge is space and capital. Definition Theatre is in a capital campaign for our new home in Woodlawn, which will serve as a theater, community center, and entrepreneurial incubator. We need the support of Chicago philanthropists to make the vision and next phase of growth a reality.

SP: In which directions would you like to see your creative practice — or Definition Theatre’s — grow in the near future?

Phillips: I am currently most interested in bridging the gap between film and theater and working on the vast disparity of funding that the live arts face in comparison to film and television. Definition Theatre is also committed to being a platform for new voices that have been previously left out or undervalued by American theater. We hope to be a beacon of creative light in our community and inspire the generations to come to dream bigger.

SP: You’re a U of I grad. What’s it like being back in town? What’s on your must do/see/eat list?

Phillips: I am grateful that I had the time to return and connect with the current faculty and students, the very place I learned how to be an artist. I’m always at KCPA working on productions and seeing what is currently playing. I love to sit and reflect at the amphitheater when it’s nice out. This trip I was able to catch the Black Chorus symposium concert and feed my soul! When it comes to food I love the four cheese pizza at Manolo’s Pizza & Empanadas, a sandwich from The Bread Company, and I usually check out the restaurant scene in Champaign. I always take a stroll down Green Street to see what’s changed and what’s stayed the same. 

SP: Where can we find information about your latest projects?

Phillips: You can always find me and what I’m up to at my artistic home in Chicago by visiting  

The Royale
Krannert Center for the Performing Arts
500 S Goodwin Ave
F Mar 3rd, 7:30 p.m.
Sa Mar 4th, 2 p.m.
Tickets available online; $10-$25


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