'The XIXth' Delves into the Intent and Impact of a Historical Sports Moment
by Cassiopeia Guthrie, April 8, 2023
Capturing a moment of solidarity seared into sports and political history, The Old Globe’s newest production, a world premiere of Kemp Powers’ The XIXth, highlights the social climate, the circumstances surrounding, and the aftereffects of the 19th Olympiad in Mexico City in its run through April 23.
The time-skipping production, which navigates back and forth between 1967 and 2006, follows the story of Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ iconic protest atop the medaling platform at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, through both their eyes and the eyes of characters adjacent to the event. Even in its introduction of lead Black athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos as they prepare to run a collegiate race at San Jose State University, it becomes apparent that, while they both see societal inequities in the world they live in, they have different approaches to tackling them. “What’s the right way to protest?” charges the more passionate and frustrated John Carlos. Tommie, who serves on the ROTC, sees a different path forward: one that is more cautious and measured. Soon, however, both men end up on the United States Olympic team and are faced with the head of the IOC’s blatant racism and Jesse Owens’ apparent complicity. Taking advantage of the moment to make their stand appears to be a given; the twist comes as this time-jumping plot device also creates an opportunity for the audience to see the consequences of the runners’ choices before experiencing the iconic moment itself.
Each performer, having been given a real human to embody, has their own journey and set of beliefs, ranging from overt disdain for Black athletes to a fervor for the work of Malcolm X and a desire to right the wrongs of the system at any cost. These internal motivations have been captured, reimagined, and scripted by playwright Kemp Powers cleverly, and are presented adeptly by a team of talented actors under the direction of Carl Cofield.
Most notably, Biko Eisen-Martin and Korey Jackson, as John Carlos and Tommie, carry the anger, frustration, passion, and exhaustion of their characters with a wiry energy that makes their casting as Olympians believable and compelling, delivering nuanced performances that capture the runners’ upbringings, belief structures, and experiences and paint the why behind each man’s approach. This is also iterated in various scenes by Michael Early as former Olympian Jesse Owens, Patrick Marion Ball as Australian competitor Pete, and, to a lesser degree, Christian Coulson as Australian coach Neville. At the center of the story’s friction, Mark Pinter delivers a chilling turn as bigoted villain and Olympic executive Avery (Mark Pinter). Arranging an examination of the broader view, Tommie’s mom, Dora, played lovingly by Kimberly Scott, chides her son into offering grace and understanding as to others’ motivations.
This navigation through the experiences and belief structures of each individual is powerful; one by one, each perspective is illuminated, allowing the script to tease out questions of how each shade of approach can independently exist with positive intent, while also living apart from impact. This approach is also uniquely situated to allow the audience a chance to connect the actions of the characters themselves with their motivations, goals, and beliefs, thus facilitating modern-day and personal connections despite the primarily historical context.
Set to original music and sound by David R. Molina with interchanging concrete backgrounds that overlay a turf and track turntable (Riw Rakkulchon), The XIXth features costumes by Mika Eubanks and lighting by Allen Lee Hughes. Throughout the production, this turntable is used to move furniture on and off stage, effectively shifting the action between an office, a funeral parlor, a diner, a home, and the Olympic stage, all while maintaining thematic continuity and keeping the one act production to a long but tight 105 minutes.
It is with this length, this examination, and this handling that the team of The XIXth has created a heady experience; by priming the audience’s navigation of a variety of different lenses on a single iconic moment, how each fits within the fabric of the Civil Rights movement, and the repercussions and fallouts for those at its center, and in the careful handling of its players, the past becomes present and the event itself lives on as intended.
The XIXth runs on the Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage at The Old Globe through April 23.