When medal-winning U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists during the national anthem at the 1968 Olympic Games, their silent protest for Black power, freedom and unity lasted just 80 seconds. But the systemic racism that drove their actions, and the price they paid for that moment, are still playing out 55 years later.
That's the subject of Kemp Powers' wonderful, smart and thought-provoking new play "The XIXth (the 19th)," which opened Thursday in its world premiere at the Old Globe in Balboa Park.
Like Powers' earlier play-turned-screenplay "One Night in Miami," "The XIXth" is historical fiction that imagines the conversations that occurred at critical moments in U.S. and Black civil rights history. And just like in "One Night in Miami" — which brought together Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown for a fierce confrontation on race and responsibility — "The XIXth" crackles with verbal intensity, while delivering gasp-inducing insights and well-earned laughs.
"XIXth," (the name refers to the 19th Olympic Games in Mexico City in '68) is a fast-moving and creatively structured 105-minute play. It begins at the 2006 funeral for the third man on the medals podium that day, Australian silver medalist Peter Norman, then it rewinds in time. Kemp makes you wait for the 200-meter Olympic race and its iconic aftermath because the play is about more than that moment. It's about the men themselves, the fast-shifting forces that drove their decision, the men who tried to stand in their way and the impact the protest had on their friendship, careers, marriages and mental and physical health.
Smith and Carlos — now in their late 70s — have said in recent years they don't regret their decision. But this play digs deep into their pain and the disillusionment they experienced with the U.S. and their personal hero, 1936 Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens, who tried to stop their protest in '68.
Carl Cofield directs the play with visual pop, fleet pacing, muscular energy and welcome humor on a unique set by Riw Rakkulchon with a turntable running track. One of the best-conceived scenes is the race itself, where moments are frozen in time to the sparkle of flashbulbs, and the runners' internal monologues pour out of their mouths in an blazing-fast cacaphony.
As Tommie Smith, Korey Jackson has the likable everyman grace of the rule-following sharecropper's son-turned-activist, and Biko Eisen-Martin offer winning and funny contrast as the irreverent, Harlem-raised rabble-rouser John Carlos. Patrick Marron Ball is endearing and earnest as the Aussie runner Pete, whose support for his fellow medalists wrecked his career and health. The understated Michael Early is a standout as the aging Jesse Owens, whose gentle efforts at diplomacy were seen as "Uncle Tom"-ism by Smith and Carlos. And Mark Pinter is chillingly smug as the famously racist International Olympic Committee chief Avery Brundage.
Smith and Carlos have long been recognized as heroes of the civil rights movement, but the progress they sought for their fellow Black Americans has been glacially slow. The latest sports hero who paid the price for his silent on-field protest is former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. In this age of more diversified social media, Kaepernick's sacrifice has not been forgotten. And thanks to Kemp Power's new play, Smith and Carlos's sacrifice is back in the headlines again.
‘The XIXth (The Nineteenth)’
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through April 23
Where: The Old Globe, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park
Tickets: $29 and up
Phone: (619) 234-5623
This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune .
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