Jesse Owens, Act Four

Synopsis

 

Jesse returns excited to his family in the USA, overflowing with optimism and offers of work. But this is short lived and by the end of scene one he admits that he has been banned by the US athletic authorities. At first he looks to have financial security but his wife Ruth recognizes the transparency of the offers. They argue about one particular one, for Jesse to race against a horse in a circus. His difficulties are compounded by the racism which is still strongly evident in the USA and he declines to bankruptcy and desperation. To find salvation he is encouraged by his father and coach to return to the Berlin Stadium where he meets the ghost of Luz Long who had been killed in World War 2. The spirit of both Jesse and Luz remains in the empty Berlin stadium.

 

 

Ohio, 1936 onwards

 

 

Scene 1: Homecoming

 

Ruth
Oh Jesse, Oh Jesse, it's good to have you back, I'm so excited, I can't believe your home.

 

Emma
Where's Jesse, I don't see him, Henry, Henry, lift me up!

 

Henry
Are you mad, I wanna live to see him too.

 

(enter Jesse)

 

Ruth
You're the star of the Games...

 

Emma
All over the papers

 

Ruth
The news, the radio, the phone hasn't stopped. I'm so proud.

 

Athlete Jesse
We're rich Ruth, we're rich Ruth, offers, money…

 

Emma
They've got security now

 

Emma and Henry
Praise the Lord

 

Emma
Come here Jesse!

 

Henry 
Come here son, I want to hear the news.

 

Emma
Did you see Hitler?

 

Athlete Jesse
… I can't believe what people are saying, wanting, giving, someone even threw money in my car. And the crowds, the streets were lined, everyone want Jesse Owens, J.C. Owens, Mr. J.C. Owens, I should say. I'm my own man now.

 

Ruth
Now you know that's not true, Jesse, things haven't changed, I heard about the Astoria, I heard you weren't allowed in the elevator.

 

Athlete Jesse
That's not, that's not important, I'm my own man now. Listen Ruth, listen, you'll never want for anything again.

 

Ruth
My Jesse, my love, my gullible man.

 

Athlete Jesse
But the main man, especially after Berlin.

 

Emma
After Berlin we couldn't reach you.

 

Ruth and Henry
We so wanted to speak, did you meet Hitler?

 

Athlete Jesse 
No, he wouldn't shake my hand, some said he waved.
Listen, Ruth, sit down Mama, Papa, I've got something to say, something important to tell you.

 

Emma
Oh Jesse, Jesse, what went on, I know my Jesse and something ain't right.

 

Henry
What you trying to say, son?

 

Athlete Jesse
After I won it was crazy, mamma, papa ...

 

Henry 
You're home now, son

 

Athlete Jesse
I don't know where to start, in truth it was a nightmare. We left before the Games had ended, I was put on a plane …

 

Brundage
Get your black spikes boy, we're touring Europe.

 

Athlete Jesse
I ran, I was put on a train,

 

Brundage
Now move, son

 

Athlete Jesse
I jumped, then I was on a plane, I ran, then a train,

 

Brundage
Ten minutes, then we go

 

Athlete Jesse
I was exhausted, I was hungry, I even begged a glass of milk and sandwich on the way to London. I couldn't take it anymore. I took a little money - they were making loads out of me, showing me off.

 

Emma
Your home now, praise the Lord.

 

Athlete Jesse
I guess now I'll need the Lord on my side 'cause I told them to stuff their schedule. I've been banned.

 

 

Scene 2: Money Lies 

 

Chorus
Jesse Owens? The Buckeye Bullet. The Midnight Express. The Dark Streak. The Ebony Antelope. Shit you got more names than a baseball team. Sure showed them Nazis a thing or two. Everybody loves you. We could make you a lot of money. Your face on billboards coast to coast. How does that sound?

 

Athlete Jesse
Ruth, just got a phone call. some guy from the baseball league. Offered money.
.
Ruth
You don't play baseball, what are you thinking?

 

Chorus
But that's where the money lies, money lies.

 

Athlete Jesse
In the interval they're gonna have me race. That's where the money lies

 

Ruth
You gotta be kidding, you're in a league of your own, which man's gonna keep up with you?

 

Athlete Jesse
Well, it ain't no man, less he's got four legs. They want me to race horses, horses Minnie.

 

Ruth
Oh my Lord. I sure hope you told them where they can shove their horses. Jesse Owens. You did tell them didn't you?

 

Athlete Jesse
We need the money.

 

Ruth
Not like that we don't. What are you thinking, you ain't no circus freak. The man I married had dignity. He wouldn't race no horses. He'd wait for something better.

 

Athlete Jesse
Do you hear the phone ringing? How can I have dignity if I can't feed my family?

 

Ruth
I don't know you any more.

 

(exit Ruth)

 

Athlete Jesse (in tears)
They said I'd be rich. They said I'd be respected. They said they'd call me. All them offers have just disappeared. Ruth, I can't lose you, but I gotta pay the rent. Would you rather be out on the streets? Or back in Alabama in a one-room shack? I ain't going back. I won them races, but you can't eat medals. How did it come to this? Four golds to my name, four golds to my name.

 

Chorus
They say it takes some beating
An Olympic champion
And a thoroughbred horse competing
Looks like Jesse's limelight gone, long gone

 

Athlete Jesse
Yes, for me, it's all about surviving
And there's no work, no advertising,
At least not for my kind of pigment
And the pie from heaven is still not sent

 


Scene 4: The Back of the Bus

Brundage
Of course Mr Owens
We know who you are
but being an Olympic star
won't change your racial status

 

Athlete Jesse
Back in Germany
I stayed in hotels with whites
But I know I'm back home
when I'm denied equal rights

 

Brundage and Chorus
Sorry Mr Owens
We hope you understand
Uncle Sam makes the rules
While God blesses this land

 

Athlete Jesse
I know I'm back
in my native America
when I'm told I can't ride
the front of the bus
and yet they say In God We Trust

 

Brundage and Chorus
Sorry Mr Owens
Please don't make a fuss
For folks like you
it's the back of the bus

 

Athlete Jesse
I'm not one to make a fuss
I'm not one for confrontation
Looks like coming home
Is coming home to segregation

 

Brundage and Chorus
That's how the race is run
In the land of the free
And that's how we like it to be

 

Athlete Jesse
I suppose there's one lesson I learnt from the track
The starter's gun can't tell the whites from the blacks.

 

Brundage and Chorus
Sorry Mr Owens
Please don't make a fuss
For folks like you
it's the back of the bus

 

 

Scene 5: A Raised Black Fist

 

Henry
What's the matter son, tell me your troubles.

 

Middle-aged Jesse
Oh papa, I'm so sorry, I've been so stupid, Ruth isn't talking to me, she knew, she could see

 

Ruth
Oh Jesse, my man of the track, it was so good to have you back. 
My black lightning who outran the wind.

 

Middle-aged Jesse
My cleaning firm is bankrupt, they used my name to raise credit ...

 

Ruth
My gazelle in flight 
Who split the light

 

Middle-aged Jesse
and now it looks like jail.

 

Ruth 
My Olympic winner,
My record breaker
Who runs like a song

Henry
We can sort it, let's take a walk

 

Middle-aged Jesse
But that's not all, everything I touch goes wrong, I've helped the kids, the army, the Government, and what's the result, my fellows call me Uncle Tom.

 

Henry 
Let's take a walk, you know where, Mama is resting there.

 

Middle-aged Jesse
A raised black fist
Is just false pride
If that fist
Got no cash inside.

 

Old Jesse
I guess I was wrong
To put it like that
But it hurt to be
Called an Uncle Tom.

Deep down I knew
That black salute
Was pointing to
A harsher truth -
My Civil Rights denied.
And what good was gold 
When doors were closed
To faces like mine?
Yes, I knew my place
In this divided race
But deep deep down 
Where the world don't see

This sharecropper's son
Saluted the best in me.

 

Riley
It's time to take stock Jesse, everyone wants a piece of you.

 

Middle aged Jesse
But how coach, where is my salvation, I always ask the Lord but I'm not sure he hears me much.

 

Riley
Then think of the horses, no not the ones you raced, the ones we saw. Where did they take you Jesse, where did you achieve your goal? Go there again, Jesse, you'll be surprised.

 

 

Scene 6: Go Find My Son

 

Middle-aged Jesse
Luz, I thought you were killed in the war.

 

Luz Long
I was, my friend, can't you tell?

 

Middle-aged Jesse
I wrote to you Luz,

 

Luz Long
I know you did

 

Middle-aged Jesse
I wrote, I wrote again, 
Kept on for a year.

 

Luz Long
Too late my friend, 
I'd already made my final leap

 

Middle-aged Jesse
And then your letter came, 
At first such joy
But I knew in my heart
I'd get no more. 
My hand was shaking
As I saw your words.

 

Luz Long
I was taught the Nazi salute
Bigotry was my first truth
And there I stood tall and proud
But Luz Long was only a youth
Now fighting here in Sicily
With Allied bombers closing in
Something tells me this will be
The last letter of my life,

And this is for you, my friend Jesse.
Do me this favour, Jesse Owens,
Go find my son in Germany
Tell him of the good between men.

Like you said, my friend, awards corrode
That much we learnt from the Olympian road.
Friendship, that's where it's at
Friendship is twenty-four karat.

Keep on, Jesse, keep on,
Ever Your friend Luz Long.

 

 

Scene 7: The Empty Stadium

 

Old Jesse
I went to Berlin, I found his son

 

Boy Jesse
About my age I'd guess

 

Old Jesse
Tears filled my eyes, so many memories...

 

Middle-aged Jesse
And so one day you find your name
Enthroned in a hall of fame

 

Old Jesse
Was it me, was that black statue...

 

Middle-aged Jesse
Frozen in time

 

Old Jesse
... the old man you see before you?

 

Middle-aged Jesse
I don't know

 

Athlete, Middle-aged, Old Jesse and Female Chorus
Stand in the empty stadium and you'll hear the crowd

 

Old Jesse
Stand in the empty stadium and

 

All Jesses, Chorus
I'll be there,
In the breeze, in the rain

 

Old Jesse and Chorus
Listen for me in the winds of Alabama
Listen for me in the winds of Berlin 
I'll be there

 

Middle-aged Jesse
In the triumph of heart and will.

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© 2018 Michael Stimpson