Louisville native Muhammad Ali will be celebrated this weekend at the opening ceremonies of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. Researching his new play, which also opens this weekend, Frank X Walker came to believe Lexington has a Muhammad Ali of its own.
"What Louisville is doing for Muhammad Ali, Lexington should be doing for Isaac Murphy," Walker says of the legendary 19th-century jockey. "I don't see how we don't have roads and buildings named in his honor.
"The World Equestrian Games seem like a perfect opportunity to shine a light on his story and the legacy of African-American jockeys."
Walker is doing that through two mediums: a new book of poetry and a play, both titled I Dedicate This Ride.
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The project came about through Lexington Children's Theatre, which wanted to create an original horse-related play to present during the Games, which start Saturday at the Kentucky Horse Park. LCT artistic director Vivian Snipes says the subject matter and author of choice were obvious.
"There wasn't any other name we came up with," Snipes says of Walker. "We said: Who is an artist we have not worked with that we really want to work with?"
Walker says he received a call from LCT producing director Larry Snipes. "My first instinct was to say, 'I'm a poet. I don't write plays,'" he said.
Well, not completely.
Walker's recent works have been turned into stage plays, and long ago he was the resident playwright with Message Theatre, part of the Bluegrass Black Arts Consortium, which was active in Central Kentucky in the 1980s and '90s.
But poetry is Walker's forte these days, and that's where he started.
Like many people, Walker knew Murphy's name but little else, except that he won three Kentucky Derbys in the late 1800s.
Research took him into the world of Thoroughbred racing, hanging out on the backstretch at Keeneland and on horse farms, and into Murphy's world, researching the history of his family and the world of black jockeys.
"You can't write persona poems without lots of research, because you are trying to get into the character's head," Walker says.
What emerged for Walker was a story with roots in the Civil War, which claimed Murphy's father, a Union soldier. It talked about hard work, mentoring, pride and relayed a little-known history of how black jockeys flourished but ultimately vanished.
"It had everything you look for: strong characters, an intriguing story," Walker says. "And if you have a good story, you want to tell other people."
In the Children's Theatre, he says, he thought he had the perfect venue because "this is a professional theater company, so I knew it would get a first-rate production."
The journey also took him back to his Message Theatre days working with director William Caise and actor Keith Griffith, who plays Murphy's mentor, Uncle Eli.
"As an actor, Frank gives you everything you need to make a complete character," Griffith says.
Caise says, "There is always a strong sense of history and culture in everything he writes. He's trying to tell the stories that aren't being told."
And in the case of Isaac Murphy, Walker wants to make sure everyone hears it.