LOWELL -- There's a sur- prising amount of bustle for the first day of re- hearsal, when Sean Daniels, the Merri- m mack Repertory Theatre's artistic director, clears his throat.
He asks the cast and crew, many of whom stand about mingling after meeting for the first time, to form a circle so that everyone can be formally introduced. A dozen onlookers, invited to every day of rehearsal as part of the theater's cohort program, shuffle to seats in the back of the room.
Once introductions are done, Daniels begins to speak about why everyone is there: "The Royale."
The show will open the MRT's fall season, and with a plot about the boxing "fight of the century" between a white man and a black man, Daniels tells everyone to consider their surroundings.
"From the second I knew I would be artistic director in Lowell, a great boxing town, I wanted to get the rights to this show right away," he says.
Daniels is right: Lowell is a boxing town. For seven decades, winters in the Mill City have been punctuated by the annual Greater Lowell/Central New England Golden Gloves tournament. Mike Tyson once fought in the tournament. So, too, did "Sugar" Ray Leonard. Micky Ward, subject of the 2011 Hollywood film "The Fighter," calls Lowell home, as did his stepbrother, Dicky Eklund, also profiled in "The Fighter," and David Ramalho. And those Golden Glove fights are hosted in Lowell Memorial Auditorium, the very same building where the MRT will put on "The Royale" next week.
One of the show's cast members, Mark Soucy, can vouch for that history. Growing up in Dracut, he recalls attending Golden Gloves fights and feeling passion for the sport everywhere he turned.
"Boxing is in their DNA," Daniels says, "in who they are."
On this first day of rehearsal, the actors sit interspersed with producers and crew at long tables, Dunkin' Donuts cups in hand, in a sort of oblong rectangle, reading lines directly from small, neatly packaged scripts. The sets are not yet ready; the costume designers look on to get a feel for what will work.
But even in this very first table-read, the play crackles. Characters bounce their lines off one another in a rhythmic, fluid way, lending sections of the dialogue a jazz-like energy.
Although the play is about boxing, the fights are staged in a strikingly theatrical way: The two characters involved in the fight face the audience, not each other, and each gives a stream-of-consciousness narration. The actors are still learning how to box, however, which Thomas Silcott said helps him give a more honest portrayal of Jay.
Marco Ramirez, who wrote the play in 2011 before it was first produced in 2013, said he wanted to focus on the psychological weight behind the fights, giving those sequences a chance to grapple with complicated questions of race, justice and history.
"It becomes very clear it's not just about (punches)," Ramirez said. "It becomes about emotionally unpacking why they're in the fight in general."
During its run at Lincoln Center in New York City, the play picked up two Obie Awards, one for direction and one for performance.
The plot is a fictionalization of boxer Jack Johnson's journey to becoming the first black world heavyweight boxing champion. Johnson -- whose name Ramirez changed to "Jay Jackson" in the text because he took several liberties with the story -- famously beat a white man in the title fight in 1910, sparking race riots that killed more than 20 people.
"The Royale" does not frame Jackson's victory as an outright triumph, though. It is aware of those historical consequences, aware that progress is a messy and sometimes painful process. Jackson's sister, Nina, appears before the final fight to remind him that, should he win, others will bear the consequences.
"For me, the play deals with the question of: What is the cost of progress?" said Megan Sandberg-Zakian, who is directing the MRT's production. "'What are we willing to accept? Are we able to make the choice knowingly to move forward with progress and social change when we understand that lives might be lost?'"
Despite its setting in Depression-era America, the subject feels relevant today. Several cast and crew members, speaking in separate interviews, all referenced white-supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va., last month. Others mentioned the recent fight between Floyd Mayweather Jr., who is black, and Conor McGregor, who is white, and the marketing techniques that highlighted the men's races.
"I'm very proud to be doing this show, right now, in this moment," said Thomas Silcott, who portrays Jay. "People are going to leave the theater with the thought: 'How do I feel about going forward? Should I stay silent?'"
Ramirez is now working as executive producer for Marvel's "The Defenders," which debuted on Netflix in August. He is not involved in the day-to-day production at the MRT, but has been available to offer feedback. And he is still eager to discuss what he wanted to do with "The Royale."
"This play isn't about boxing," Ramirez said. "It's not about the brother-sister dynamic. It's this real bittersweet sensation that progress is slow, but when it finally happens, sometimes it can be so satisfying."