But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed
Othello, William Shakespeare
The template for the contemporary celebrity athlete — now supercharged through social media – is well established. At its extreme, it brings to mind a cocky showman with a flair for talking smack, a taste for new money trappings and ever an eye on the cameras. And, of course, the game to back it all up.
But as with all icons, that uniquely American persona had to start somewhere, and its origins can arguably be traced to the early days of the 20th century and one John Arthur “Jack” Johnson, the first black boxer to be world heavyweight champion.
With “Dare to be Black: The Jack Johnson Story,” now playing at the Delaware Theatre Company through November 13, creator and performer Tommie J. Moore brings us ringside to the life of that cultural phenomenon, the son of parents born slaves, dubbed the “Galveston Giant” for a granite bearing and what was then an imposing six feet of height. Directed by the DTC’s Bud Martin, Moore’s one-man play jabs and weaves its way through a period of immense national change, from a time when a divided, largely rural country was still finding its post-Civil War footing to the jaunty big-city beginnings of what would become the ‘American Century.’
Yet heavy across this era laid the cloak of racism, with millions freed from the bonds of slavery but still facing the painful daily reality of prejudice and oppression. Opportunity for black citizens did not come easily – in fact, the basic rights of citizenship themselves were too often withheld.
So Johnson’s blazing appearance on the cultural landscape – frequently with a white woman of questionable reputation on his arm – was a shocking and irresistible sight to behold. The boxer’s ascent to the top of the ranks required enduring vicious racist taunts and indignities; as he beat one white fighter after another his legend – and the vitriol and unfairness he faced – grew.
Moore, a chiseled physical specimen himself, depicts a proud and resilient man who finally got his shot at the title in 1908 against Canadian Tommy Burns. Johnson pummeled and easily bested Burns for the world championship, but his victory led to cries for a “Great White Hope” to dethrone the black usurper. This set the stage for the greatest sports spectacle of the young century: the 1910 showdown against James Jeffries, an undefeated, but washed-up former champion who came out of retirement to teach Johnson a lesson. Witnessed live by more than 20,000, the fight was the first multi-media sporting event of its kind, with the promoter (also the referee!) holding exclusive rights to its filming.
Just over one hundred years later another epic bout in that same western state would capture the public’s imagination, and so too it would pit black against white. But August’s showdown between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor held none of the immense social gravity of the Johnson-Jeffries fight, nor the ugly aftermath. Following a lopsided Johnson win (called at 15 rounds, there was no limit on rounds in that era), racially-motivated violence was reported across the country, and the motion picture was banned throughout the south.
Moore gives us a sympathetic Johnson doing the best he can to “act normal” amid extremely unusual circumstances. He was a trailblazer, given no guidebook for being the first black superstar, and his high-profile earned the enmity of establishment figures, white and black included (the prim Booker T. Washington was not a fan). Johnson was no choir boy, and his drinking, nightclub-buying, gold tooth-wearing, white women-marrying and, grimly, girlfriend-beating, put a target on his back, ultimately resulting in his being brought up on flimsy charges for violation of the Mann Act, a law prohibiting the transport of women across state lines for “immoral” purposes.
Johnson had always been a smart, strategic fighter, an early practitioner of the rope-a-dope, waiting out his tiring opponents for the chance to strike a knockout blow. So he went on the lam for several years, vainly hoping to outlast the government’s prosecutorial zeal.
That was not to be. Tired of living abroad, he surrendered and served twelve months in prison.
The circumstances surrounding Johnson’s imprisonment have generated broad calls for a posthumous pardon – including an online petition started by Mike Tyson and two bipartisan resolutions passed by the US Congress. But unpardoned he remains.
Not that a reminder is needed during this particular NFL season, but “Dare” shows us that since the dawn of the professional era, bigtime sports have reflected and amplified cultural dynamics with the power to both unite (I’ve rarely seen a more diverse/integrated crowd in Wilmington as that assembled for the Mayweather-McGregor fight) and divide.
Moore is a monologuist of considerable talent and stamina who delivers a complex champ equal parts athlete, bon vivant, storyteller and Shakespearean orator. It is a skillful, impassioned performance, an embodiment of an important story that shouldn’t be forgotten.