BWW Review: DARE TO BE BLACK: THE JACK JOHNSON STORY at DE Theatre Company
At the height of the Jim Crow era, Jack Johnson became heavyweight champ in 1908. But Johnson was no Uncle Tom, in fact he was the antithesis, railing and raging against racist whites who would dare challenge both his fame and his manhood. For over a decade he was the most famous and most notorious African-American on earth. He had a chip on his shoulder the size of a Sequoia. He did everything he could to stick it to whitey, including marrying a white woman in 1910.
The one-man production "Dare To Be Black: The Jack Johnson Story" was written and performed by Tommie J. Moore and directed by DTC's Artistic Director Bud Martin. The unit set by Dirk Durossette is spare yet intriguing, a 3-sided full-sized boxing ring which created a strong image of authenticity. Above the ring is a screen on which Production Designer Nicholas Hussong projected slides of the real Johnson in the early 1900's. There are even film clips from one of his historic fights.
Playwright/Actor Moore gives an impassioned performance. All the words are his and he shouts out the rage within Johnson. It is difficult sustaining audience engagement in a one man show and at various times the flow ebbed.
Following a linear biographical portrayal of Johnson's life, much monologue is spent on the 1910 "Fight of The Century". Previous heavyweight champ James Jeffries was bought out of retirement to fight Johnson in Vegas. He was christened by the media as "The Great White Hope" in anticipation of dethroning Johnson. After Johnson won riots brought out around the nation and some were killed, mostly black.
The notoriety empowered Johnson further and Moore speaks to the fighter's excessive flamboyance and snubbing of polite conventions.
The 'n' word and 'foul' language we hear all the time on TV. This should not discourage anyone from attendance. If Moore had filtered those words out we would have been left shortchanged. Johnson was an avatar for suppressed "negroes' of the era, but his legend is stained by his admitted wife abuse.
I felt at times that Moore pandered to the audience to elicit reactions... "what do you think about that" he asks us. We dutifully nod our heads. In the final minutes of the production Moore shushes the audience in mid-applause to comment "that maybe someday there will be a black President".
"Dare To Be Black' resonates. Sadly, racism is alive and well today as it was 100 years ago. That may be the most forceful message from Tommie J. Moore.
Through Nov 12 DelawareTheatre.org 302.594.1100
Next Up: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) Nov 29