“Dare to Be Black: The Jack Johnson Story,” now playing at the Theater for the New City (155 First Ave. between Ninth and 10th streets), is one of the most important plays of 2016. Tommie J. Moore, the playwright and star of this most insightful one-man drama, brings a compassionate, human dimension to the first “Negro” heavyweight boxing champion of the world.
While James Earl Jones was brilliant in the Broadway (1968) and film (1970) productions of “The Great White Hope,” the scripts only allowed for a one-dimensional character, a heavyweight who was loud and extremely egotistical. Whites perceived him as an “uppity Negro” who needed to be put in his place.
“The Great White Hope” tells a fictional, idealized story of Johnson, who in the Broadway version was called Jack Jefferson. However, Moore’s one-man drama, which runs now through Feb. 21, focuses on Johnson as a Black man in America during the early 1900s who had a plan to become the first Black heavyweight champion (he won the title and was champion from 1908 to 1915). This in spite of the fact that American racism was at its zenith, and lynchings were just another apple pie passtime.
Moore has researched the facts for this one-man drama, sharing Johnson’s life of complications living in a world of segregation and prejudice. “I made up some of the jokes, but all the facts are real,” said Moore, who, as a personal trainer and body builder, has the perfect physique to play the champ. “I was never a professional boxer but did participate in the Golden Gloves as a teenager.”
Aside from the two most noted documentaries by Ken Burns and William Cayton in 1970, Moore’s play is only the second production after the Broadway production to focus on Johnson. Unfortunately, the undefeated heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries, who came out of retirement in 1910 to defend his crown against Johnson as “the Great White Hope,” is better known, although his attempt to decrown Johnson was a brutal disaster for him.
Moore became interested in the life of Johnson after writing a 15-minute short scene for students as a favor for a friend. “His life was so important I decided to write a full-length play,” said Moore. “I wanted to show his personality and feelings as a human being.”
Moore becomes Johnson, sharing his personal feelings as a proud Black man, flamboyant and unapologetic. He talks about his love for fast, expensive sports cars, fine clothes, good cigars and lots of women most of them white. Even inserting a joke about having the audacity to walk the streets of Paris with a pet black panther.
There was one advantage that Johnson and his boxing champion predecessors had over the other great athletes that followed: They could go in the ring and beat the living hell out of their opponents, giving them great satisfaction particularly if they were white. Although at the end of the day, for all the great Black athletes, winning was and always will be the best revenge.
But during Johnson’s days when segregation was at its peak, he was always a minute from being lynched. That thought never worried him. He kicked butt and kept going.
On a few of his winning nights, whites did unleash their anger by beating or lynching an unsuspecting Black person. These violet acts on Black people over his winning filled Johnson’s heart with sorrow and anger, causing him to do even greater damage to his opponents. It was a heavy burden for him to constantly bare.
Moore uncovers Johnson’s heartfelt, conflicted emotions from a racist society, obtaining his life’s goals to love. At one point he was a co-owner of Harlem’s Cotton Club.
As America’s first Black champion, Johnson set the standard for those proud, diligent Blacks that followed, carrying the weight of Black America on their shoulders whether conscious or unconscious. Some include Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Archie Moore, Mohammed Ali, Jesse Owens, Oscar Robinson, Bill Russell, Jackie Robinson, Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe and Venus and Serena Williams.
The champ impressed Miles Davis. He felt a personal bond, so when Bill Cayton asked him to record music for his documentary, it was a done deal. He recorded “Jack Johnson” (Columbia, 1971). The album only has two tracks, “Yesternow and “Right Off.” The music reflected Davis’ hardcore jazz fusion spirit while the tunes reflected Johnson’s life with a combination of aggressiveness, fast-moving, improvised riffs, a muted trumpet and with blazing drums and keyboards. While the album never received proper attention, it was one of Davis’ best recordings.
The track concludes with a voiceover by actor Brock Peters (who also played the role of the boxer): “I’m Jack Johnson, heavyweight champion of the world. I’m Black. They never let me forget it. I’m Black alright, I never let them forget it.”
The play is directed by the noted jazz promoter, actor and five-time AUDELCO winner Rome Neal. Neal also directed Amiri Baraka’s “Meeting Lillie,” Wesley Brown’s “Life During Wartime, as well as one of his own plays, “God Made Man in His Own Image.”
By bringing awareness to this tour de force performance, Moore and Neal hope to spark an interest in getting audiences and politicians such as Councilman Gregory Meeks to support a movement to get Johnson a pardon for his 1912 violation of the Mann Act, trafficking women across state lines for the purpose of prostitution. He was convicted and spent a year in Leavenworth State Penitentiary despite an all-white jury, racism and a lack of evidence. “I am the first Black heavyweight champion of the world, can’t nobody say that but me,” stated Johnson.
For tickets and reservations, call 212-254-1109 or visit www.theaterforthenewcity.
While the temperature dropped last weekend, the Monterey Jazz All Stars made sure the Birdland jazz club was steaming hot. The collaborative group of Nicholas Payton, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Joe Sanders, drummer Gregory Hutchinson and Raul Midon on guitar, vocals and bongos represent the long-running Monterey Jazz Festival in California.
“We recently played the festival so Jimmy [Lyons, the founder] put together this tour,” said Payton. “We are having a lot of fun playing together, which is the first time for some of us since we all have our own projects.”
The first show was totally sold out, and the ensemble got off to a fiery start with Payton’s original “6.” It sounded like a funk band for a minute with all that hard-swinging blues up in the mix combining the bass and piano.
Midon added the lyrics to Clayton’s tune “Deep Dry Ocean.” He stretched out on this song, taking it into a bluesy swing sermon as he played guitar and the bongos with his other hand, Coltrane’s soprano sax was flying high as he met that trumpet up in the sky.
Clayton paid tribute to Thelonious Monk and Herbie Hancock, two of many musicians who graced the Monterey stage. They played a restructured, improvised version of “Round Midnight,” with Coltrane on tenor saxophone, deep and mellow.
Midon has a voice to be reckoned with. His vocalese can be mistaken for a live trumpet. He is an exciting musician. Hopefully he and the Monterey crew will record an album together. Although Clayton noted, they were just having a great time. “We are just trying to ride the groove,” he said.