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Director Tyrone Phillips sheds light on real-life legend Jack Johnson in APT’s “The Royale”

Director Tyrone Phillips

An exciting new production will be playing for the upcoming summer at American Players Theatre (APT). The Royale is set to premiere this coming Friday, June 16, and run until September 27.

The Royale is about a successful Black boxer in the early 1900s, a time when segregation in every aspect of society was the norm. Director Tyrone Phillips will be bringing the production to the woods and recalled when APT Artistic Director Brenda DeVita came to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign while he was still in school for acting. 

“I was in college and Brenda came in. It was a classical training program,” Phillips told Madison365. “You had people from Chicago, and we had about seven Black kids running Shakespeare. That’s a rarity, to have some companions while you’re going through that. Usually, you’re the only one.”

This time in school along with influences from being a first-generation Jamaican-American moved Phillips’s interests more behind the scenes in positions where he did not see as many Black writers, directors, and set workers. Much like the real-life Jack Johnson who influenced the play, Phillip’s goal is to push for a larger scope of what is possible and be praised on the stage. 

“What stuck out to me is that Jack just wanted to be the best at what he did,” said Phillips. “Whatever arena, it could be boxing, but for me, it’s in theater. How do I change hearts and minds? I want to be the best director that you ever come across when you work with me. Even allowing ourselves as people of color to have that mentality, and to have that hope and dream not thinking about the white gaze is something that is super important to my work in general.”

American Players Theatre

Based on the real-life legend Jack Johnson, the “Galveston Giant” challenged notions of what was acceptable for a Black person in action and attitude during a time when violence and death were the usual tools of white racism. Much like Johnson, who was impossible to silence or ignore, Phillips spoke of how pushes to acknowledge voices of color have been a long time coming and are meeting many artists at a place they were at long before the want was there.  

“I think now it’s changed in that places are trying to tell more stories of color. They’re trying to, but it starts with the writer for me. I’m excited seeing support for writers of color to figure out how to tell their story,” Phillips said, recalling the shifts in the attention his mission of anti-racism got after 2020. 

“People have to say yes to stories like these and also to supporting people of color creatively, in general,” said Phillips. “That’s something that I want to hold everyone’s feet to the fire for and I’m just lucky I have a home in Chicago that makes it our mission.”   

Phillips and his colleagues are some of those voices that have been pushing for change for around a decade. Through Phillips’s own theater company, Definition Theatre, with co-founder Julian Parker, the fight for diverse voices and stories in theater continues on in its own local Chicago way. Phillips also hopes that The Royale serves as a continuation of that work. 

“You’re gonna be challenged in a beautiful way,” said Phillips. “The play gives space to say, ‘What are the things that are hindering us as a society that we know about, and what are the things that we don’t talk about?’ Let’s have that conversation.”

Though audiences may be challenged by stark messages of anti-racism by an unabashed look at the realities of discrimination and racial oppression, it may help to consider why these stories are important. With productions such as A Raisin in the Sun and The Brothers Size already seeing attention at American Players Theatre, The Royale serves as another offering in what is sure to be a shift towards a broader and more inclusive approach to theater. 

“I’m addicted to theater-making because I know it can change the minds of people. It also can change the way they live their lives. If you do it right, and if you hit them hard enough in the heart and the gut, they could come to a play and then leave and something be changed about them,” Phillips ended on, hoping that even through content that may seem uncomfortable to discuss, growth can happen.

“I get offended when people say, ‘Artists are no brain surgeons.’ For some of us, you’re right. If it’s for entertainment’s sake only, no, we’re not. For what I’m in it for, I think we are brain surgeons, and I think we can unlock something in people.”


To learn more about The Royale and purchase tickets for upcoming shows, visit the American Players Theatre website here