Resurrection of a Heavy-Weight

 

Jack Johnson - played by Tommy Moore II

Tommie J. Moore as Jack Johnson
Tommie Moore brings Jack Johnson to Life in “Dare to Be Black”

Of all the difficulties facing an actor in the theater, the one man play is arguably the greatest.  Without a cast of actors to play against, the lone thespian must hold the attention of the audience and create dramatic tensions on his own.  He must be able to create bathos and pathos – comedic and tragic moments – with his verbal delivery and body language alone.  With only stage props, and sometimes recorded music, the actor must create an imaginary world and purely on the basis of his telling of the tale transport us into that world and make it real.

It is a task that has much in common with a solo piano performance for the artist, in that any shortcoming will be magnified and thus only a consummate master can pull it off.  Tommie Moore pulls it off grand fashion; it is as if Jack Johnson sprang before us fully alive and complete….like the goddess Athena sprang into the world full blown from the forehead of Zeus.

Mr. Moore is also the playwright, and as Shakespeare warned us: “The play is the thing.”  Hence the fate of a theatrical work is sometimes dictated before the actor ever looks at the script.  For if a play is badly written – or fatally flawed – not even great actors can salvage it no matter the caliber of their performance.  In this instance Moore has scored on all points because the script is brilliantly written.  And the way Mr. Moore came to write this work was a serendipitous affair; like so many creative works, whether it be in the arts or scientific discoveries.

The play has its origins in a chance encounter he had with an actress, who he now remembers only as “Barbara,” who was performing a one woman show playing Harriet Tubman, the great female abolitionist and “Conductor on the Underground railroad” that ferried runaway slaves out of the South into “Free Territory.” It was she who gave him the idea of writing a one man play about Jack Johnson. He recalls:

She told me that I should write a 15 minute monologue about Jack Johnson. At this time, I knew very little about Jack Johnson. I did much research and I was amazed.  His life was so intriguing. As I continued to research Jack Johnson, I felt sorry for him. How is his story not told? Why is Hollywood staying away from his true story? Why are Blacks staying away from his true story? It was then, I made a commitment to write a full production play. I wanted people to see Jack’s power, charm, and intelligence. He was not only a great boxer. He was a one-man activist. His life was an activist. He refused segregation. Whatever whites could do, Jack did. So now, here I am trying to educate the world about our First Black Heavyweight Champion. As well, as get him a pardon”

The paramount problem for any artistic treatment of historical subjects is to capture the zeitgeist of the era, to recreate the historical milieu so that we can experience the tenor of the times.  The most important themes of that era of American history was white supremacy and the inferiority of peoples of color, especially black people who had only recently emerged from slavery, in fact Jack Johnson’s parent’s had been slaves.  It was a time when the ideology of white supremacy permeated all phases of worthwhile human endeavor.  And the belief that white men were not only smarter that black men, but physically stronger and more courageous, was conventional wisdom.

And it was taken as gospel truth that white men were naturally also more sexually desirable than black men, hence any white woman that had sex with a black man was either deranged white trash or it was rape. And this assumption, like the ideology of white supremacy itself, was an article of faith throughout the dominant white world, which had conquered and colonized the millions of people living in “Africa, Asia, the Americas and the Islands of the seas” as Johnson’s black great intellectual giant and contemporary would put it in his famous statement: “The Problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line!”

The logic of white male sexual dominance was simply stated by the French General/Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte in the 18th century.  When Napoleon was informed that Alexander Dumas, a handsome black man who was his leading cavalry general and one of the greatest swordsmen in France, was banging his sister Bonaparte had him arrested.  He explained his actions thusly: “How can you convince a man that you are his superior if he is sleeping with your sister!”  While intellectuals like Dr. Dubois, Dr. Kelly Miller, James Weldon Johnson, Monroe Trotter, Ida B. Wells and others debated the veracity of the white supremacist myth, Jack Johnson shattered them by his actions: defeating Tommy Burns and winning the Undisputed World Heavy-Weight Championship and openly sleeping with white women.

Jack Johnson and Socialite Etta Durea
Jack and White Sweetie II
He openly violated the central Taboo of the era.

boxer-jack-johnson-and-wife

She turned her back on white America for black Johnson

Indeed Jack contemptuously flaunted his violation of this all American taboo.  According to historian Jeffry T. Sammons in his seminal book “Beyond the Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Civilization,” Johnson would routinely sleep with three white women after publicly humiliating white men in the ring.  Hence one of the enduring mysteries about Jack Johnson is why such a man was not lynched i.e. murdered in a public “ritual of blood” as the Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson describes lynching in his chilling and insightful text “Rituals in Blood,” which he argues  is a form of “cannibalism” when black men were burned alive.

When Jack Johnson won the Heavy-Weight Championship in 1908 black men were being crucified in such murderous rituals at the rate of one every two and a half days, and as Dr. Rayford Logan shows in his masterwork “The Betrayal of the Negro,” this had been going on at that rate for twenty years!   That Johnson was able to do the things he did yet remain alive gave him the aura of a superman, and outraged white men of all classes.

He was a living breathing refutation of the white man’s claim to superiority over black men because they had acclaimed the Heavy-Weight Champion of the world the most potent man on earth!  Hence Johnson was the filthy black fly in their pristine bowl of white milk that must be removed at all cost. Yet, ironically, they only way to fully discredit Johnson and nullify the effects of his victory was to find a white man who could kick his black ass fair and square.  Thus began the search for “the great white hope.”

Amazingly Johnson was almost as interesting outside the ring; he was a bass player, bandleader, nightclub owner, aficionado of fast cars, a great dresser and lady’s man.  He was articulate, witty, cocky and was famous for his “golden smile – a reference to the gold crowns he wore on his teeth.  Tommie Moore manages to capture this unique outsized personality and his strange times in a bravura performance that brings this complex character to life and takes us back to the racially troubled milieu of early 20th Century America.

From the moment he walks out onstage, which is at the same level as the audience, except for the boxing ring that dominates this sparse set, he jokes with the audience and talks jive to the ladies in character.  Early on he hooked us and never let up as he spun tall tales about his life and times.

When he strips to the waist, displaying his finely muscled physique, the ladies squealed and we were amazed at how much he actually resembled Jack Johnson, who also possessed a sharply defined Physique.  Moore makes great use of the fact that Johnson fancied himself a thespian.  He aspired to play Othello, who like Johnson was a great black fighting man in a dominant white society who enraged some white men because he won the love of Desdemona, a beautiful white woman.

Choosing the scene where Othello is brought before the authorities and accused by her father of employing Black Magic to place her under his spell, Moore renders Othello’s explanation with a power that does justice to the Bard.  He also comes out in one scene, dressed to the nines in the fashion of the times, turns the music up on the radio and dances a dance that was au courant in that period.

Jack Johnson in fighting gear

Jack Johnson as a young fighter

He became the dominant sex symol of his day among white women

The play encapsulates the major issues that Johnson faced as a man who dared to be unapologetically black, and who whipped the toughest white men in public for a living.  Moore allows us to share Johnson’s disgust at the fact that after he defeated Tommy Burns for the World Heavy-Weight Championship the white press continued to refer to Jim Jefferies, who had retired while still Champion, as the Champ.  One of the things that make this play so powerful is the extent to which Moore incorporates Johnson’s actual words into his script, and here he renders them with perfect blend of amusement, anger and contempt.

This work is a tour de force that deserves a much wider audience, and unless all the producers in New York are blind, tasteless, spineless or racist in should find a path to Broadway.   As in all of his pearls of wisdom Shakespeare was certainly right when he observed “the play is the thing,” but it takes great actors to make it feel real….and Tommie Moore made us forget that he was just acting.  Which is what the Great British Thespian Sir Lawrence Olivier meant when he warned aspiring actors: “Acting is a noble profession…but a real actor must never be caught doing it.”

(See the Historic Johnson v Jefferies Fight)

https://youtu.be/esnq-orAvo8

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Playthell G. Benjamin
New York City
April 11, 2016

 

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