Racing to the Future

The Kentucky Derby is an unquestionably joyous and celebratory time for the Louisville community, but many do not realize that horseracing is just like any other sport. Prejudice and racism have often reared their ugly heads, dashing the dreams of minority jockeys, trainers and horsemen throughout history.

There is always someone who has the strength to overcome, however. Someone who, while not necessarily getting to enjoy the fruits of their struggles themselves, paves the way for the future. Boxing had Muhammad Ali. Baseball had Jackie Robinson. Horseracing had James Winkfield.

JockeyJimPoster-updated“It’s arguably the most fascinating saga in racing history and set against a backdrop of 20th century bigotry, war and upheaval,” reveals Larry Muhammad, playwright of “Jockey Jim,” a play that chronicles the life of Winkfield. The story is this: A poor boy wins the Kentucky Derby twice. He then rides winners from Moscow to Warsaw to Paris at a time when Black jockeys were becoming extinct in America. He marries an heiress, survives the Russian revolution and World War II in Europe and returns to the U.S. to overcome racism and reclaim a forgotten legacy. If that doesn’t get your heart pounding, nothing will.

This is far from Muhammad’s first time penning a script, and his previous occupation has certainly afforded him the writing chops to create compelling theatre. “I was a journalist for 40 years. I wrote my first play, ‘Double V,’ in 2000,” says Muhammad. He has written much in a relatively short amount of time, including “Buster!,” a musical about the Reverend Louis Coleman; “Henry Bain’s New Albany,” a moving portrayal of New Albany’s budding Black middle class in the early 1900s; and “The Magnificent Stephen,” a play detailing the story of a celebrated slave guide at Mammoth Cave in the 1850s who miscalculates the limits of his fame in a tragic bid for the freedom promised in his late master’s will. Muhammad also wrote under the pen name Cisco Montgomery for some other works such as “Boomerang,” a tale of a tribe of twentysomethings celebrating a friend’s birthday in Berkley, California in the ’60s, and “Kin Under the Skin,” a one-act farce about reparations for American slavery.

Photos courtesy of Larry Muhammad

Photos courtesy of Larry Muhammad

It’s a easy to notice that the majority of Muhammad’s work seems to have a social-justice bent. It’s something that Muhammad is well aware of in his writing: “I write what interests me, and maybe because of my journalism background, I’m drawn to material that’s topical or, in some way, appealing to the general public and not just theatergoers.”

Muhammad also cites his journalism background as the reasoning behind some of his process. “I go to the public library. I go online. I find as much information as I can about a subject and find sources to interview,” he says. “For ‘Buster!,’ I read more than 1,000 articles about Louis Coleman and interviewed close to 30 people. As a retired journalist, Muhammad also knows that the audience’s attention will be more in tune to certain topics at different times of the year. For example “Henry Bain’s New Albany,” performed at Stage on Spring and directed by J.R. Stuart, was part of the New Albany Bicentennial. His play, “Murder the Devil,” about homegrown terrorism, was done around September 11. “But the plays about historical figures Frank Stanley, Louis Coleman, Stephen Bishop, Jimmy Winkfield and Henry Bain all grew from newspaper reporting I did about these individuals, and I later felt compelled to put their stories on the stage. Part of my mission is putting African-American Bluegrass history on the stage,” Muhammad asserts.

“Jockey Jim,” which is being performed at the opportune time of Derby, is actually a remount, a well-received production previously being done in 2010 at Actors Theatre: “We have several people returning from the 2010 production. Billy Bradford is directing again; Eric Allgeier is again doing the set; Nick Dent is doing lights again. Other crew members are Haley Davis, stage manager; Ken Atkins, sound designer; and Joshua Crowe, costumer.”

Whatever your Derby traditions may be, consider taking in some culture and taking advantage of the opportunity to learn about the last African-American jockey to win the Kentucky Derby. These are the stories that need to be told, not only to honor the past but also to race into the future. VT

“Jockey Jim” runs April 30-May 6 in The Henry Clay Theatre. Reservations can be made by emailing kyblackrep@gmail.com or by calling 502.727.7972.