Most of us in Lexington know the name Isaac Murphy, but know little about him except he was a black jockey in the late 19th century.
In dramatic fashion, Message Theater answers the questions of who Murphy was and what happened to him and black jockeys in general in its production of Kentucky Poet Laureate Frank X Walker’s I Dedicate This Ride: The Making of Isaac Murphy.
This is the second production for the revived theater troupe that was active until the early 1990s presenting shows by black playwrights and showcasing black actors and directors. I Dedicate This Ride, which continues Sunday afternoon and next weekend, March 6 to 9, brings founding members Walker and actor-director Keith Griffith back for a rousing production that is well worth a look, even if it is a little rough around the edges.
The play premiered at Lexington Children’s Theatre in 2010 directed by another Message founder, William Caise, and featured Cathy Rawlings as Murphy’s mother, America Burns, a performance that is revived in this production.
Without looking at them back to back, I cannot tell how much the play has been revised since its LCT run, though there are definitely some words that weren’t in that show and probably a few situations. It was also a more musical show, capitalizing on the vocal talents of Rawlings, Sylvia Howard and other cast members.
Even at the Children’s Theatre, Ride skewed toward older students and adults addressing some tough issues about race and slavery, which was still newly ended when the play is set. There are glaring reminders that everyone has not snapped out of slavery mode, like a moment when a potential employer inspects Isaac as if he was on an auction block.
We start with young Isaac, pretending to ride a racehorse while his mother cleans clothes at their house on the outskirts of Lexington. Soon, Isaac gets his shot to ride, under the direction of Uncle Eli (Griffith), and becomes the most successful jockey of his day, including three Kentucky Derby wins. He is able to travel and establish a luxurious three-story home in Lexington for himself and his beloved Lucy (Howard).
As his star rises, America, Eli and others advise him to remain humble, lest a boastful black man anger the white establishment. But he can’t help himself boasting, and as he and other black jockeys leave white jockeys in the dust, the whites make moves to reclaim the sport.
Dmetrius Conley takes us on that journey from Isaac childishly whipping a stool, pretending it’s a horse, to showing off his tailored suits and bragging about Derby wins, to suffering the indignities of whites who were never going to respect him, no matter what he accomplished.
The play’s best moment is when Isaac is reclining on Lucy and telling her how he always pictures his late father watching him race. The genuine emotion Conley brings out exemplifies how fortunate Message is to have an actor of his caliber leading the company’s second 21st century production — it relaunched in January with a performance of The Meeting, a two-man play about a fictional meeting between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X that featured Griffith and another founding member, Patrick Mitchell.
There is a general feeling of warmth in this show, of the village that has helped raise Isaac rise to his vaunted status and then watch as he is taken down by forces beyond his control.
Kudos to the cast for giving a fully-formed performance despite circumstances. I saw it Saturday night with seven other people, including the ushers, likely through a bad combination of a UK basketball game, impending winter weather and light publicity. Those circumstances could deflate many performers, but this company performed like it was a full house.
There are some signs the production may have been a little rushed. Several actors struggled at times with lines, and while some costumes, partuicularly the ladies dresses and Isaac’s tailored duds, were exquisite, there were noteworthy glitches like modern shoes. The set was spare, but just enough to help set the scene for the story.
Griffith really appears to know what he has to work with in this production and does not stretch beyond that so he can tell the story. And it’s a story worth telling, so Isaac Murphy becomes more to us than just a name on a monument, from a company that clearly has something to say.