With the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in town, the Lexington Children's Theatre focused its spotlight on one of the most celebrated jockeys in racing history.
Isaac Murphy, a black jockey in post-Civil War Lexington, earned fame, wealth and international recognition as one of the winningest Thoroughbred racers of all time. The Children's Theatre commissioned acclaimed Kentucky poet Frank X Walker to write I Dedicate This Ride: The Making of Isaac Murphy.
Elegantly wrought, deftly performed and handily turning from serious to funny and back again, the world premiere of I Dedicate This Ride is part history lesson, part poetry in motion and part testament to the ancient West African tradition of the griot, a class of storytellers who keep history alive with oral tradition. All of this congeals to illuminate the human element of Murphy's life, the triumphs and travails that didn't make it into the record books.
Like a good race, the story wastes no time getting started. Within the first few minutes, we witness Murphy's childhood in slavery, learn of his father's eventual death serving in the Union army, and his relocation to Lexington with his mother.
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LCT company member Joshua Gilyard embodies Murphy's personal charisma and professional dedication in a complexly drawn lead role. He successfully captures a young Murphy's dreamy pluck that helped him experience the freedom, power and dignity that racing offered him.
Murphy's victories are less than sweet, however, when he begins to understand that professional excellence and impeccable manners aren't enough to counter the deep-seated racism and segregation that remained rampant after the Civil War.
Gilyard's Murphy heartbreakingly pendulums from starry-eyed youth to disillusioned middle adulthood.
Gilyard works in organic tandem with Cathy Rawlings, who plays Murphy's mother, America Burns. Rawlings draws a potent figure in America, a mother who must strike a balance between encouraging Murphy's abilities and warning him of the limitations and injustice that will surely be visited on him for the color of his skin. Rawlings does this with equally stern and subdued aplomb.
William Caise's directorial vision subtly centers on the griot theme while aligning the momentum of the unfolding tale with the shifting rhythms of Walker's language and imagery.
As historically informative as it is artistically potent, I Dedicate This Ride most likely skews toward older children, mainly because some social nuances might be lost on the very young.
The play celebrates Murphy, but it does not sugarcoat the ugliness of his era's reality.