Jesse Owens, Act Three

Synopsis

 

The Berlin Games is broken into five ‘film’ scenes, each of which has a preliminary sub-scene sung by the film-maker Leni Riefenstahl and older Jesses. Each transforms into the events of the 1936 Games - the Hitler youth exercise and two Nazis sing about seeing African American athletes for the first time. Jesse’s triumph forms a central point of the Act and during the long jump competition he forms a friendship with the German athlete, Luz Long. But the pleasure of his success is tempered by the pain of the Jewish athlete, Martin Glickman, who is replaced at the last moment by Jesse in the relay team. Although Jesse’s appearance on the victory rostrum is powerful, it is all the more so as he acknowledges his colour via the musical memories of the Ku Klux Klan from Act 1.



Berlin 1936

 

 

Scene 1: Leni Riefenstahl (1)

 

(at the front of the stage, in darkness)

 

Leni Riefenstahl
Will the name Leni Riefenstahl
Be forever shamed by history's ashes?
Will I forever be a ghost of the Nazis?
Will the world be pleased if I said Guilty?

 

Middle-aged Jesse
Don't say you didn't know what followed?
Don't say you didn't live in Hitler's shadow?

 

Leni Riefenstahl
Do they expect me to say, yes, I am a beast,
When I swear I didn't know what was happening.
The urge for beauty was so deep rooted in me,
I followed it with every fibre of my being.

 

Scene 2: The Games (1)

 

(stage lightens to stadium)

 

Brundage 
Well here we are boys. Covered in glory.

 

Athlete Jesse
Covered in cigarette ash more like.

 

Glickman
Shame we're not all here

 

Brundage
What did you say, the noise, I can't hear?

 

Athlete Jesse
Look around, Marty, ain't it amazing?

 

Glickman 
Chills my Jewish bones Jesse.

 

Nazi 1, 2 and Chorus
See all the blacks in the American team. 
Some of them are pretty fast I hear.
Of course they are, people who come from the jungle are more primitive, 
Their physiques are stronger. 
It's not really fair to let them compete.
Well, this might be their last chance once the Games come to Berlin for good.

 

Brundage
Well what d'you say now, I knew it was worth it

 

Glickman
Worth it for your business, some would say.
Shame we're not all here.

 

Brundage
What did you say, the crowd, it's so large

 

Athlete Jesse
Look at Hitler, Marty, he's not so big.

 

Nazis 1 and 2
Let's raise the Aryan body
To pedestal-height
The human form is pleasing
O so very pleasing
As long as it's white
Let's raise the Aryan body
May the dark salute the light

 

Chorus
Our myths and legends tell us
Blondness plays the Master's role
And a good Nazi does
As a good Nazi's told

 

 

Scene 3: Leni Riefenstahl (2)


(at the front of the stage, in darkness)

 

Old Jesse
Don't say you were blind to reality.
Where was conscience in your scheme of beauty?

 

Leni Riefenstahl

My camera was my eye, my everything.
Reality holds no magic for me.

 

Old Jesse
So your art was Nazi propaganda?
A simple yes or no? What's your answer?

 

Leni Riefenstahl
Yes, I captured Aryan beauty in its prime.
You can call this(, if you wish,) a crime.
But doesn't the black beauty of Jesse Owens
Also shine on through Leni Riefenstahl's lens?

 

 

Scene 4: The Games (2)

 

(stage lightens to stadium)

 

Chorus
Jesse Owens, Jesse Owens

 

Athlete Jesse
The crowd seems to like us Marty.

 

Glickman
They like you Jesse right enough. They're not so keen on folks like me.

 

Athlete Jesse
Well, I'll show Hitler what us blacks can do. So why not the Jews the same, Marty. You could hop and still win the relay.

 

Glickman
You're damn right I will, but I still don't like their salutes.

 

Brundage
That's just politics son, got nothing to do with sport.

 

Athlete Jesse
Maybe not, at least I'm not segregated here. But Hitler's the man of the hour...

 

Glickman
I don't know about that. I don't even know if we should be here at all.

 

Brundage
That's enough, we've been through that boycott horseshit. You're here to run. It's all about the sport boys. All about the sport. You know I only have your interests at heart.

 

Chorus
Jesse Owens

 

Nazis 1 and 2
How could we include
Black in the Fuehrer's fold
When the Nordic nude
Is perfection's goal
Though we won't deny the fact
The Fuhrer's moustache
Is as dark as coal

 

Chorus
Our myths and legend tell us
Blondness plays the Master's role
And a good Nazi does
As a good Nazi's told


(integrated with the main action)

 

Middle-aged Jesse
Beauty. Power. Strength. All fascist ideals.
What help were these ideals to the Jews and gypsies?

 

Leni Riefenstahl
Answer me this question? Should I confess
To showing the human form at its best?
How well I remember Jesse's long jump.
Harmony in motion. A black triumph.

 

Chorus
Jesse Owens, Jesse Owens

 

Athlete Jesse
`Sure is loud in here, putting me off my run up.

 

Luz Long
They're shouting for you, they like the way you run.

 

Athlete Jesse
Two golds in the running. But here you got me beat .
I keep messing up. I won't even make the final.

 

Luz Long
You'll qualify just fine I'm sure.

 

Athlete Jesse
I hope so. I know I can beat you!

 

Luz Long
You don't need to push to make the distance. I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll put my towel down, a few inches from the board. Use it as a marker if you like.

 

Athlete Jesse
You know I might just do that.

 

Luz Long
I want to see you in the final. I don't want to win too easily.

 

Nazis 1 and 2
The Greeks, in case you forgot,
Made the male form divine.
And so are Aryans, are we not?
Yes, Olympus is on the Rhine
Now the armies of Apollo
Are marching with the Gestapo 
Forward with the Aryan torso

 

Luz Long
My God, man, where did that jump come from?

 

Athlete Jesse
I don't know. I don't know.

 

Luz Long
You were flying. I didn't think you were going to come back down.

 

Athlete Jesse
I don't think I have, Luz, I don't think I will.

 

Luz Long
This Olympic record will surely stand for years.

 

Athlete Jesse
You jumped well too.

 

Luz Long
But not like you. Well done my friend. Well done.

 

Athlete Jesse
Thank you. Friend. For everything. But does my victory put you at risk?

 

Luz Long
We'll see, we'll see

 

Athlete Jesse 
You can melt down my medals
You can melt down my cups 
There's no trophy worth as much 
As the gold of the human touch. 
Awards in the end will corrode 
But true friendship never rusts 
For that Olympian road
Leads to the best within us 

 

Chorus
Friendship, that's where it's at 
Friendship is twenty-four carat
Friendship, that's where it's at 
Friendship is twenty-four carat

 

Old Jesse
And on that day in Berlin 
Friendship blossomed over skin
What I discovered on the tracks
Stood taller than white or black 

 

Athlete Jesse
This wasn't what Hitler had planned 
An Aryan offering me his hand 
But when blonde Luz and me embraced 
I'd loved to have seen the Furer's face

 

Athlete, Old Jesse and Chorus
Friendship, that's where it's at 
Friendship is twenty-four carat
Friendship, that's where it's at 
Friendship is twenty-four carat

 

 

Scene 5: Leni Riefenstahl (3)


(darker but integrated with the stadium)

 

Middle-aged Jesse
You still haven't answered the question.

 

Leni Riefenstahl
My dream was always to make fairy tales.

 

Middle-aged Jesse
So in Leni Riefenstahl's world of fantasy
Is there room for moral responsibility?

 

Leni Riefenstahl
All my life, I pursued the beautiful, the strange.
Even to the very heart of Africa.
Could the Fuehrer ever have imagined
That my lens would make immortal Jesse Owens?

 

Leni Riefenstahl and Middle-aged Jesse
Could the Fuehrer ever have imagined

 

Leni Riefenstahl
That my lens would make immortal Jesse Owens?

 

 

Scene 6: The Games (3)

 

Glickman
I don't believe it

 

Athlete Jesse
Marty, Marty, I'm so sorry, I didn't know, I swear I didn't know

 

Glickman
The bastards, the shits, they've got no right. I've trained all my life for this moment, you can't do this, you can't do this.

 

Athlete Jesse
I'm sorry, it's nothing to do with me

 

Glickman
Our team would have won whoever was in

 

Athlete Jesse
I know that Marty, you can have my place

 

Brundage
No he can't, the Germans have some new special runners

 

Glickman
You know that's shit, they'd have run in the main races. It's because I'm Jewish.

 

Athlete Jesse
Marty...

 

Brundage
Jews out, blacks in, it's all the same to me.

 

Athlete Jesse
I'm so sorry, I didn't know, I swear I didn't know

 

Glickman
You anti-Semites, I should have stayed at home, it's not fair

 

Brundage
Well the decision is final, Jesse's in, and you're out, get your black spikes, boy

 

(Athlete Jesse on podium, family at side)

 

Middle-aged Jesse
I remember standing on that victory stand
Awaiting my gold medals
I flashed to everyone who'd loved and helped me -
My Mama and Papa, Minnie, Riley -

 

Emma 
My wonderful, wonderful boy, my baby.
I always knew you would shine through.
God bless you, Jesse.

 

Henry
All that running's paid off,
All that chasing after cotton.
Been a long time coming.

 

Ruth
My Jesse, my poetry in motion. 

 

Riley
I said you'd do it in four, Jesse.
Four years and you'd be ready.
What has Hitler got to say to four golds?

 

Middle-aged Jesse and Chorus
I was never bothered by Hitler
Or the Berlin weather - damp and cold.
I was in Berlin for the running in my blood
And to take the gold.
That's the aim of every athlete I've ever known.

 

Athlete Jesse
I told myself, Jesse, stay calm and proud
But when I heard The Star-Spangled Banner
Playing softly, then growing loud,
I felt my eyes just filling up
And saw my country's flag in a blur.

 

Middle-aged Jesse
I could hear the crowd roar
I could hear my heart hum
I could hear my name soar
As I stood on that podium
But ovations don't last forever.

 

Chorus
We are the ghosts of Confederate soldiers

 

Middle-aged Jesse
Under the Stars and the Stripes

 

Chorus and Nazis
We are the Knights of the White Camelia
The Iron-Cross Oath
We have a way for his type, 
Daily assaults, 
leave the bodies in the road, 
ours is the promised land

 

Middle-aged Jesse
They have a word for my type
And it's that ugly word: nigger.

 

Athlete and Middle-aged Jesse
Yet the star-spangled banner
My gold saluted with pride
While back in Alabama
I knew my rights were denied Yes, I jumped for my race
Yes, I jumped for my country.
But most of all I jumped for me.
That day Jesse jumped for Jesse.


(front of stage in darkness)

 

Old Jesse
So how will you like to be remembered?

 

Leni Riefenstahl
It is enough that my camera is my witness.
And on that day of the Berlin Olympics,
I saw beauty shine at its very best.
I saw Jesse's body as black marble. Timeless. 

 

Old Jesse
The black body was just a living statue.
A voyeur's delight. Isn't this true?

 

Leni Riefenstahl
My eye saw beauty in black as much as white.

 

Old Jesse
I couldn't say the same for my America.

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© 2018 Michael Stimpson