Kemp Powers will share his “purest voice” in the Old Globe world premiere, The XIXth (The Nineteenth).

55 years ago, African-American track and field athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists in the air and bowed their heads as they played “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the medal stand at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

Today, the photo of the two US sprinters — gold medalist Smith at the top of the podium and bronze medalist Carlos to his left — has become an iconic image of the Black Power movement and Black Americans’ struggle for civil rights and unity. But how the silent protest of the men affected their lives in the following decades is hardly remembered.

Kemp Powers hopes to change that. The Oscar-nominated screenwriter and playwright’s latest project, The XIXth (The Nineteenth), has its world premiere Thursday at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego.

The piece is inspired by the events of the 19th Olympic Games on October 16, 1968 and the tribute it took on Smith and Carlos, as well as Australian sprinter Peter Norman, the silver medalist who supported their ideals.

Powers said the play was not a documentary chronicle of events. It’s a fictional story that he says is “less about what happened than why.”

“It explores these larger issues like protest and being allies and making that personal sacrifice and what we’re doing it for,” he said. “It’s about the idea of ​​standing up for something that sounds simpler than it really is.”

The cast of The XIXth (The Nineteenth) from Old Globe, from left: Biko Eisen-Martin as John Carlos, Korey Jackson as Tommie, and Patrick Marron Ball as Pete.

(Rich Soublet II)

Powers, 49, received an Oscar nomination two years ago for the film adaptation of his 2013 play One Night in Miami, which was also a fictionalized portrayal of a real-life civil rights-era event.

After defeating boxer Sonny Liston in a heavyweight title fight on February 25, 1964, boxer Cassius Clay spent a private evening in a Miami hotel room with human rights activist Malcolm X, NFL star Jim Brown and R&B singer Sam cooking

No one outside the hotel room knows what was discussed that evening, but over the weeks and months that followed, Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X broke with the Nation of Islam, Cooke recorded his first protest song: “A Change is Gonna Come.” ‘, and Brown would leave the NFL to pursue a film career. Within a year of that fateful night, both Cooke and Malcolm X were shot.

Powers said he wrote his first draft of The XIXth (The Nineteenth) in 2018 while working on the Disney-Pixar animated film Soul. Powers co-wrote and co-directed the 2020 film about Joe, a black music teacher who dies but his soul plans to be reborn as the jazz musician that Joe never quite was.

One of Powers’ inspirations for the new play was the fall of Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback who was essentially blacklisted by the NFL for performing the national anthem at the 2016 season games in protest of police brutality and racial inequality had taken a knee. Although Kaepernick reached a confidential settlement with the NFL for his abuse in 2019, he has not played since 2017.

“Colin Kaepernick’s reaction was something that got a lot of people, including myself, thinking about the 1968 Olympic protest,” Powers said.

Powers, who is set to co-direct the first of two back-to-back superhero films — Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse and Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse — said he sees Smith and Carlos as a hero, but his new play isn’t about heroism.

“We all want to be heroes, and you could walk away from this[game]and say you’re careful about what you wish for,” Powers said. “Heroism means being awarded a medal for doing something, but the wounds you suffer become scars that stay with you forever.”

October 16, 1968

U.S. track and field athletes Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos stare down during the national anthem after Smith won the gold medal and Carlos the bronze medal in the men’s 200 meters at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City October 16, 1968 . At left, Australian silver medalist Peter Norman.

(Associated Press)

Almost a year before the start of the XIX. Olympic Games, black athletes, collectively organized as the Olympic Human Rights Project, made plans to boycott the Games. The group’s demands included banning the apartheid nations of South Africa and Rhodesia from the Games; restore Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight title, which was stripped from him in 1967 when he refused to enlist in the US Army; and having more black coaches on Olympic teams, according to a 2018 story in The Washington Post.

The organized protest eventually fizzled, but individual black athletes privately discussed how they could attend the games and still make their own personal public statements. That opportunity presented itself for Smith and Carlos on the medal stand after the 200m. They climbed onto the platform with black socks and no shoes to symbolize black poverty. Smith also wore a black scarf around his neck in honor of black pride, and Carlos wore a pearl necklace in memory of black people who were lynched or killed.

At a press conference after the event, Smith said, “If I win, I’m an American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, they would say I was a Negro. We are black and we are proud to be black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.”

Within two days, the athletes were suspended from the Games and sent back to the United States, where they would spend the next several years under constant FBI and police surveillance, endure multiple death threats, and battle depression and career challenges. Smith and Carlos were always heroes within the black community, but it would be decades before their protest was recognized as heroic by the broader American public. Smith is now 78 and Carlos is 77.

Norman, the Australian silver medalist, was fined for wearing an Olympic Human Rights Project badge on his tracksuit during the medal ceremony. When he returned to his home country he was shunned and although he qualified for the 1972 Olympics Australia did not select him for the team so he retired from the sport. He died in 2006.

In an interview with a Milwaukee television station last August, Carlos commended Norman for his courage, saying, “He went to extremes … you can say we can have 9 million white athletes (but) I doubt we would have gotten another.” someone who had the audacity and nerve to step up and say, “Man, I support you.” ”

On the shoulders of giants

The Old Globe’s marketing poster for the play The XIXth (The Nineteenth) by Kemp Powers.

(Courtesy of The Old Globe)

Powers said that as a young man he was inspired by the bravery of Smith, Carlos and Norman. But one thing that has struck him over the years is that young people perceive acts of courage differently than people of older generations.

For example, track star Jesse Owens may have been a boundary-breaker for winning four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. But in 1964 he tried unsuccessfully to stop Smith and Carlos from protesting. Smith was reportedly so angry at his former idol that he never spoke to Owens again.

Powers said young people often have a different perspective on the urgency of the moment than on the impact that might follow.

“They were young men and women. Over time, they’ve become these iconic people, but they were very young – early 20s – and they were doing all these amazing things and changing the world. Any big move is usually a youth moment. The older we get, the more we lose our nerve,” Powers said.

Bring the script to life

Carl Cofield is the director of Kemp Powers’ The XIXth (The Nineteenth) at The Old Globe.

(Courtesy of Matty D Photography)

Powers said after writing the screenplay for The XIXth (The Nineteenth), he put it on hold for a few years to focus on Soul and other projects. Then came the pandemic and suddenly he had the time to open the drawer and get back to work.

Powers has worked over the past year to complete the play in collaboration with director Carl Cofield, who directed the world premiere and many subsequent productions of the play One Night in Miami. He said he has up until this week to make last-minute changes to the script.

Compared to his film and television projects—the Spider-Man films and writing five episodes of Star Trek: Discovery—Powers prefers to write for theater because it gives him more freedom as an artist.

“My purest voice is my voice on stage,” he said. “For me, when you write a play, it’s like opening my brain and my heart and pouring it out on stage.

“It’s different financial stakes,” he said. “It’s not the same as making a $50 million film. The aim of the regional theaters are interesting changes. It’s about exploring things that aren’t necessarily easy to explore. I find it liberating.”

‘The 19th (The Nineteenth)’

When: Previews, March 17-22. Opens March 23rd and runs through April 23rd. Game times, 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 2pm and 8pm on Saturdays; 2pm and 7pm on Sundays

Where: The Old Globe, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park

Tickets: $29 and up

Phone: (619) 234-5623



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