Jesse Owens, Act Two

Synopsis

 

A soliloquy of USA in the 1920’s is sung by Jesse’s mother, the music, always in a classical genre, moving from the blues influence of Act One to a more jazz-based swing. A lighter period in Jesse’s upbringing follows, as he meets his coach Charlie Riley and his wife to be, Ruth. He begins to compete often against University teams where African American students aren’t allowed to study. This is reflected by a tired Jesse looking for somewhere where African American people can eat in public – inspired by Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit. The Act closes with the excitement of Jesse’s family when learning of his four world records in 40 minutes and the anticipation of going to Berlin for the 1936 Olympics.


Ohio, 1920's

 

 

Scene 1: 1922

 

Emma
1922 - the year the Charlestown
migrated to the heels of Broadway
and white knees took to ragtime
and of course the blues -
And the hips were loving it

1922 - the year Mamie Smith
released her 'Mean Daddy Blues'
and Babe Ruth slugged his way
into baseball legend

1922 - the year full colour
hit the movie screens
but for Henry Owens, 
he soon discovered
life was no golden apple in Cleveland Ohio

1922 - a year of hopes and dreams -
JC finding his feet at Bolton Elementary,
Finding himself a brand new name.

 

Henry
What you mean, you've got you a new name?

 

Boy Jesse
Well, like teacher says to me
'What's your name, boy?'
And I says J. C. 
And teacher says 'Jesse'
And I says again J. C.
And teacher says 'That will do, Jesse'

 

Henry
J.C. is for James Cleveland, you know that.

 

Boy Jesse
But J.C. sounds like Jesse 
Now everybody's calling me Jesse.

 

Henry
Well, J.C. Owens,
if you wants to be called Jesse
and if everybody calls you Jesse,
then what you answer to, son, that's your name.

 

Emma
And so he became Jesse. Jesse Cleveland Owens,
And he was about to make that name known
on the tracks of Fairmont Junior High.
There he would meet a girl named Minnie
And a coach named Riley. How time flies.

 

 

Scene 2: Riley

 

Boy Jesse
Coach, where we going?

 

Riley
It's a surprise. You'll soon be finding out.

Boy Jesse
Race track! You betting on a horse, Coach,
or we gonna train here?

Riley
Look and learn, son, just look and learn.
Learn from the horses and you can't go wrong
A racehorse is the best coach in town
And now we're off to see the horses run
Look and learn, my boy, see how it's done
Horses teach you the meaning of speed and grace
And without them two, might as well quit the race

 

Boy Jesse
I'm list'ning coach, I'm watching, see how they look

 

Riley
Horses when they win
You never see them grin
Horses when they lose
They never make excuse
Take it all in their stride
Determination's on the inside

 

Boy Jesse
I think I understand

 

Henry
Racehorses! Mind you don't get too close, JC 
This Riley's got some mighty strange ways

 

Boy Jesse
I see it

 

Henry
Can we trust him?

 

Boy Jesse
I can feel it

 

Henry
Does he know what he is doing?

 

Riley
Let it be said that Riley said,
many a colt that's raggedy
can grow into a grand thoroughbred.
Jesse, my lad, you're a natural talent
But talent's only a rough gem
That shines with hard work and commitment
Think thoroughbred, think thoroughbred
And run, my boy, like the track's on fire

 

 

Scene 3: Jesse meets Ruth

 

Athlete Jesse
Hey, Ruth Minnie 
What's up?

 

Ruth
You talking to me
Jesse Owens?

 

Athlete Jesse
Looks like it.
Mind if I call you Minnie?

 

Ruth
Don't mind if I do.

 

Athlete Jesse
You can call me Jesse.

 

Ruth
You don't sound like you from up north.
Let me guess…Alabama?

 

Athlete Jesse
How you guess that?

 

Ruth
That southern drawl can't hide.
Wanna guess where I'm from?

 

Athlete Jesse
From where 'am standing
I'd say Cleveland Ohio
But you never know
You could just be from heaven

 

Ruth
I just might be
But since you ask I'm a southern girl…

 

Athlete Jesse
Like I'm a southern boy. Home-grown.

 

Ruth
That's one thing we sure got in common.
But my folks from Griffinville, Georgia.

 

Athlete Jesse
Must be a mighty fine place
To produce a mighty fine girl like you
You anybody's girl?

 

Ruth
I ain't nobody's girl.
Jesse Owens, if you can run half as good
As you can sweet-talk
Then there's no stopping 
Those feet of yours

 

Athlete Jesse
Now look who's sweet-talking.
Wanna come and see me practise, sometime,
Am' on my way to meet my coach?

 

Ruth
I just might

 

Athlete Jesse
Will you be my girl?

 

Ruth
I just might

 

Athlete Jesse
That might sounds mighty good to me.

 

 

Scene 4: Minnie's Song

 

Ruth
Don't know if it's his walk
Or the sweetness of his talk
Don't know if it's his jokes
That makes me laugh till 'am weak
But there's something 'bout Jesse Owens
That makes my heart leap

 

Wanna tell the world
Wanna tell the world
Jesse's asked me to be his girl

 

Don't know if it's his smile
Or dem dark brown eyes
Just might be dem running feet
O just might be dem running feet
Yes there's something 'bout Jesse Owens
That makes my heart leap

 

Wanna tell the world
Wanna tell the world
Jesse's asked me to be his girl

 

Jesse, Jesse, my heart is racing with you 
Whenever you run my heart is racing too.

 

 

 

Scene 5: Jim Crow

Riley
Let's stop, we've been driving all night

 

Athlete Jesse
I'm hungry coach, I can't run on air
Does this hole have anywhere that I'm allowed to eat?

 

Riley
I'll pick something up, better you stay in the car

 

Athlete Jesse
Yeah, I know my place

 

Riley
Better safe than sorry

 

Athlete Jesse
I could out run them

 

Riley
Even you can't out run a bullet

 

Athlete Jesse
OK, let's eat and get out, I've a hard meet tomorrow and my back is killing me.

 

Old Jesse
Them poplar trees
Can't tell black from white from brown
But what them poplars witness
Will linger at the roots of minds to come.
Tonight it is another of Africa's sons
But the Lord shall bear his spirit home

 

Middle-aged Jesse
But the Lord shall bear his spirit home

 

Middle-aged and Old Jesse 
Coulda been a Native Indian
Coulda been a Jew or Latino
Coulda been someone
Who simply said No
To the deeds of Jim Crow

 

Them poplar trees
Can't tell black from white from brown
But what them poplars witness
Will linger at the roots of minds to come.
Tonight it is another of Africa's sons


Swing low sweet chariot, bear his spirit home
Swing low sweet chariot, bear his spirit home

 

 

Scene 6: Four World Records

 

Emma (out of breath)
Henry! Henry!

 

Henry
What's the matter?

 

Emma
Get yourself here quick.

 

Henry
What's wrong this time?
Somebody arrested? Somebody sick?#

 

Emma
Henry Owens, you always think the worst.

 

Henry
Please Lord….

 

Emma
Give me strength, Henry, it's our Jesse.

 

Henry
Hope he's in no kinda trouble?

 

Emma
He's only gone and won himself four world records!

 

Henry
What you talking about, woman?

 

Emma
He's all over the papers….

 

Ruth
Oh my God, let me see. It says so right here.
He's won and won and won and won!

 

Henry
Well, I'll be damned.

 

Emma
Four world records in forty minutes! He's a star, a celebrity. 
Now everyone will want to know our Jesse.

 

Ruth
Yeah, including all them glamorous ladies in LA.

 

Emma
But he's on his way home, we'll see him soon.
Give praise to the Lord.

 

Henry and Ruth
Praise to the Lord.

Riley
So you've made it, Jesse. You've done it.

 

Athlete Jesse
We've made it, coach. You and me.

 

Riley
Get you some rest, cause the Olympics' next.
Set your sights on Berlin. That's where you wanna be.
You've done it, son. Only you can stop you now.

 

Athlete Jesse
I can aim to jump
As high as the stars
I can aim to run
As fast as the wind

But it all counts for nothing
If the battle over myself
Ain't the battle I win
That's the bottom line, the true test

 

Athlete and Middle-aged Jesse
Charles Riley, my coach,
One thing he makes me to know:
You might be considered the best
And have world records to show

But it all counts for nothing
If the battle over yourself
Ain't the battle you win
That's the bottom line, the true test.
If the battle over yourself
Ain't the battle you win

 

Boy, Athlete, Middle-aged, Old Jesse, Riley and Ruth
It all counts for nothing
It all counts for nothing

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© 2018 Michael Stimpson