Fifty-five years ago, African American track athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists in the air and bowed their heads during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the medals stand at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.
Today, the photograph of the two U.S. sprinters — Smith, the gold medalist, at the top of the podium and bronze medalist Carlos below and to his left — has become an iconic image of the Black Power movement and Black Americans’ struggle for civil rights and unity. But how the men’s silent protest affected their lives in the decades that followed is barely remembered.
Kemp Powers hopes to change that. The Oscar-nominated screenwriter and playwright’s latest project, “The XIXth (The Nineteenth),” opens Thursday in its world premiere at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego.
The play is inspired by the events that occurred at the 19th Olympics on Oct. 16, 1968, and the toll it took on Smith and Carlos, as well as on Australian sprinter Peter Norman, the silver medalist, who supported their ideals.
Powers said the play is not a documentary-style chronicle of events. It’s a fictionalized tale that he says is “less about the what happened and more about the why.”
“It explores these greater themes about protest and being an ally and making this personal sacrifice and what we’re doing it for,” he said. “It’s about the idea of standing up for something that sounds easier than it really is.”
Powers, 49, earned an Oscar nomination two years ago for the 2020 film adaptation of his 2013 play “One Night in Miami,” which was also a fictionalized account of a real event that occurred during the civil rights era.
After defeating boxer Sonny Liston in a heavyweight title fight on Feb. 25, 1964, boxer Cassius Clay spent a private evening in a Miami hotel room with human rights activist Malcolm X, NFL star Jim Brown and R&B singer Sam Cooke.
Nobody outside that hotel room knows what was discussed that evening, but in the weeks and months that followed, Clay would change his name to Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X would break with the Nation of Islam, Cooke would record his first protest song, “A Change is Gonna Come,” and Brown would leave the NFL to pursue a movie career. Within a year of that fateful night, both Cooke and Malcolm X would be shot to death.
Powers said he wrote his first draft for “The XIXth (The Nineteenth)” in 2018, when he was working on the Disney-Pixar animated film “Soul.” Powers co-wrote and co-directed the 2020 film about Joe, a Black music teacher who dies, but his soul plots to be reincarnated as the jazz musician Joe never was in life.
One of Powers’ inspirations for the new play was the downfall of Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback who was essentially blacklisted from the NFL for taking a knee during the National Anthem at 2016 season games in protest of police brutality and racial inequity. Although Kaepernick reached a confidential settlement with the NFL in 2019 for his mistreatment, he hasn’t played since 2017.
“The Colin Kaepernick reaction was something that got a lot of people, myself included, thinking about the Olympic protest in 1968,” Powers said.
Powers, who is about to co-direct the first of two back-to-back superhero films — “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” and “Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse” — said he sees Smith and Carlos as heroes, but his new play is not about heroism.
“We all want to be heroes, and you might leave this (play) saying careful what you wish for,” Powers said. “Heroism is having a medal pinned on you for doing a thing, but the wounds you have to sustain become scars that live with you forever.”
Nearly a year before the XIX Olympic Games began, plans were being made by Black athletes, collectively assembled as the Olympic Project for Human Rights, to boycott the games. Among the group’s demands were to have the apartheid nations South Africa and Rhodesia uninvited from the games; to restore Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight title, which was stripped from him in 1967 when he refused to be inducted into the U.S. Army; and to have more Black coaches on the Olympic teams, according to a 2018 story in The Washington Post.
The organized protest eventually fizzled, but individual Black athletes privately discussed ways they could compete at the games, but still make their own personal statement in the public eye. That opportunity came for Smith and Carlos on the medal stand after the 200-meter race. They climbed on the platform with black socks and no shoes, to symbolize Black poverty. Smith also wore a black scarf around his neck in honor of Black pride and Carlos wore a bead necklace in memory of Black people who were lynched or killed.
At a press conference after the event, Smith said: “If I win, I am American, not a Black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.”
Within two days, the athletes were suspended from the games and sent back to the U.S., where they would spend the next several years under constant FBI and police surveillance, endure multiple death threats and battle depression and career challenges. Within the Black community, Smith and Carlos were always heroes, but it would be decades before their protest was recognized by the larger American public has heroic. Smith is now 78 and Carlos is 77.
Norman, the Australian silver medalist, was punished for wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on his track suit during the medal ceremony. He was shunned when he returned to his native country, and despite qualifying for the 1972 Olympics, Australia did not select him for the team, so he retired from the sport. He died in 2006.
In an interview with a Milwaukee TV station last August, Carlos praised Norman for his bravery, saying: “He went to the extremes … you can say we can have 9 million White athletes (but) I doubt if we could have got another one that had the audacity, the nerve to step up and say, ‘Man I’m in support of you.’ ”
Powers said that as a young man, he remembers being inspired by the bravery of Smith, Carlos and Norman. But one thing he has noticed over the years is how young people have a different perception of acts of bravery from people of older generations.
For example, track star Jesse Owens may have been a boundary breaker for winning four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. But in 1964, he unsuccessfully tried to stop Smith and Carlos from protesting. Smith was so angry at his former idol, according to media reports, that he never spoke to Owens again.
Powers said young people often have a different perspective on the urgency of the moment versus the repercussions that may follow.
“They were young men and women. Over time, they’ve become these iconic people, but they were very young — in early 20s — doing all these amazing things and changing the world. Any great movement is usually a youth moment. The older we get the more we lose our nerve,” Powers said.
Powers said that after he wrote the script for “The XIXth (The Nineteenth),” he put it in a drawer for a couple of years to focus on “Soul” and other projects. Then the pandemic arrived and suddenly he had the time to open the drawer and start working on it again.
Working with director Carl Cofield, who directed the world premiere and many subsequent productions of the play “One Night in Miami,” Powers has been working to finish this play over the past year. He said he might continue to make last-minute changes in the script right up to this week.
Compared to his film and TV projects — the “Spider-Man” films and writing five episodes of “Star Trek: Discovery” — Powers said he most loves writing for the theater because it offers him more freedom as an artist.
“My purest voice is my voice onstage,” he said. “When you write a play, it’s for me like opening my brain and my heart and pouring it out on stage.
“It’s different financial stakes,” he said. “It’s not the same as making a $50 million film. The goal of regional theaters is to take interesting swings. The point is to explore things that are not necessarily easy to explore. I find it freeing.”
When: Previews, March 17 through 22. Opens March 23 and runs through April 23. Showtimes, 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays
Where: The Old Globe, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park
Tickets: $29 and up
Phone: (619) 234-5623
The venue, previously known as Zappos Theater, has been undergoing multimillion-dollar enhancements over the last year including fully redone artist dressing r
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