Playwright and actor Tommie J. Moore is on a mission to clear the unjust criminal record of boxer John Arthur "Jack" Johnson (1878-1946), the "first Negro heavyweight champion of the world, and can't nobody but me say that." Moore's 90-minute one-man play Dare to Be Black, onstage at the Delaware Theatre Company under Bud Martin's astute direction, makes a compelling case for the larger-than-life character whose successes, despite rampant racism, paved the way for Muhammed Ali and other high-profile black athletes.
No fake news
Moore casts the audience as the press, who he accuses of misrepresenting him because of his race. "You know a man's character by his means, not his end," he reminds us, excoriating us to tell the truth.
He’s also a good match for the powerhouse known as the "Galveston Giant," performing much of the play in a sleeveless t-shirt and shorts (costumes by Katherine Fritz), revealing a physique that leaves no doubts. Dirk Durossette’s set, a full-size boxing ring, ropes missing on the downstage side, is largely a backdrop; Moore prowls downstage, close to the audience, often engaging individuals in the first few rows. His energetic braggadocio charms us.
Most of the play is straight biography, from Johnson's childhood in Galveston to his harrowing story of being forced into fighting and his goal of becoming heavyweight champion. Racism blocked him; while he quickly rose to the top among black fighters, the recognized white champion refused to fight him. When he finally fought and defeated the white champ, detractors sought a "Great White Hope" to regain the title. This led to 1910's "Fight of the Century," when undefeated former champion James Jeffries left retirement to face Johnson.
Johnson's story is supplemented by vintage photos, newspaper headlines, and film clips on an upstage screen (projections by Nicholas Hussong), including excerpts from that famous brawl. Moore exits to don a dandy suit, then focuses more on Johnson's life outside the ring: his three marriages (to white women), his unwise spending (including a pet leopard), and the continuing racist efforts to discredit him (including a "sloppy frame-up" and prison term). Through it all, Moore portrays cigar-chomping Johnson as inspiringly defiant and unapologetically exultant, even sharing tall tales with a wink about chasing a kangaroo in Australia and being denied passage on the Titanic because of his race.
Fight the power
Moore sometimes aims his comments at his modern audience, not only regarding the pervasive racism that continues today, but also in Johnson's opinions about the U.S. prison system. Johnson's clearly entitled to be bitter, but Moore doesn't let him wallow, even in his life's hardest times, nor does he make Johnson a martyr or saint. He's a brutal man with a huge chip on his shoulder, but his proud spirit shines through.
Dare to Be Black entertains, and addresses today's racial issues through an historical lens, allowing us to appreciate how ugly blatant racism can be — and how important it is to fight back. Moore's effort to clear Johnson's name is a worthy part of that struggle.