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Kemp Powers on 'The Nineteenth' and 'Spider-Man,' the De La Torre Brothers and Reggie Watts

 March 30, 2023 at 5:49 PM PDT

S1: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Kavanagh , and I'm here with arts editor and producer Julia Dixon Evans. And Julia. Hi.

S2: Hi , Maureen. Thanks for having me.

S1: So let's talk about one of the big events currently running on stage in San Diego. It's a play and it's having its world premiere at the Old Globe , and it's called the 19th. And what I understand it's about is that iconic moment when two black American athletes raise their fists from the winner's podium at the 1968 Olympics.

S2: It was at the 1968 Summer Olympics , which were the 19th Olympic Games , hence the title. And American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos , they were on the podium first and second place , and they were protesting human rights issues like segregation and apartheid. This was the 200 meter dash. And Tommie Smith actually got the world record for that race running just under 20 seconds. It was 19.83 seconds. And I love that such a short period of time has become such this everlasting story.

S1: Now , the play's author is Kemp Powers. He's already a pretty big name in the entertainment industry.

S2: And that actually also started as a stage play and it was adapted into a film. And he co-wrote and co-directed Pixar's Soul , and he was brought on to direct Spider-Man Across the Spider verse. That's the sequel to the movie that came out a couple of years ago. And then also beyond the Spider-verse that will come out next year.

S1: And so you managed to speak to this busy man about the 19th. Yeah.

S2: Yeah. And he says that there is a certain kind of story that he chooses to tell when there's a moment in history like this where there are what he called greater truths to learn.

S3: The story of the 19th is is really special to me because it's a history that I have to admit I didn't know much about outside of that very iconic photo , that being the Olympic protest in 1968 by Tommie Smith and John Carlos and also actually Pete Norman , who supported them. And it's something that's always kind of been a symbol of black protest. Being a former journalist , when I started digging and doing a little bit of research into what went on in the moments leading up to that , as well as what happened after that protest , I guess it just got me thinking about what it means to make a heroic gesture and what the cost can be , not just to the people who make that gesture , but to those who care about them , their families and their friends. And it spoke to me about things like allyship and what it takes to to really be brave.

S4: So these two men that.

S2: You told us about , this was the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. The two black sprinters who raised their fists in protest. It was on the medal podium.

S3: The Olympic Project for Human Rights was basically considering boycotting the Olympics if they did not expel Rhodesia , which is today , Zimbabwe and South Africa from the Olympic Games because of their apartheid policies , those two countries did end up getting expelled from the 68 Olympics. But a lot of athletes basically thought that it was still important to make a gesture because there were lots of there were lots of demands that the group had made , everything from the hiring of more black coaches to the reinstatement of Muhammad Ali's boxing title. So there was a lot of rumbling about athletes making some kinds of gestures. And of course , the biggest gesture we remember was that the raise fist of John , John , Carlos and and Tommie Smith. And I think the idea , at least as I explored in the play , was the idea that , you know , they do it and everyone else follows suit. But in reality , what happened is both Tommie and John Carlos were expelled from the Olympic Village within a couple of days , and most other athletes pretty much fell in line. And there was hardly any other protest. There was like 1 or 2 much smaller gestures at those Olympics , but that was pretty much the end of it.

S2: And for athletes , you know , it's so complicated to speak out. How do you think this impacted John Carlos and Tommie Smith on on a human level ? And I guess also , how did you find hope to ? Telling their story.

S5: Well , I mean , both of them have spoken at length.

S3: Publicly about their lives after both of them have actually written their own autobiographies. But they had to suffer in their personal lives , professional lives and in their mental Their mental health suffered pretty , pretty dramatically because of that. And I think when that example is made of people who speak up , it's very effective at making a lot of other people afraid to speak up in the same way. And what is inspiring to me is that people still do speak up and stand up despite pretty much the the acceptance that doing so is going to put them in the crosshairs of of very , very many people. I mean , they did this back in a time before social media. It also gives me inspiration because both men spoke so lovingly throughout their lives of Pete Norman , the Australian runner who supported them by wearing a button. And I think another big element of this story is what it means to be an ally , what it means to really be an ally. Because in many ways , Pete Norman suffered almost as much as them without even having raised a fist , just speaking in support of them and wearing a button. He was not invited back to the Australian Olympic team and was pretty much ostracized almost equally. But but again , it's something that until the later years of his life , when he passed away , he always spoke of with pride and with no regret whatsoever. So those are the things that really inspire me about what happened.

S4: And I want to talk a little bit about craft.

S2: You started out early in your career as a playwright with One Night in Miami , and you've had a lot of success with the big screen since then , including the hugely popular animated film Soul , the forthcoming Spider-verse franchise sequels. So what made you want to tell this story ? The 19th on the stage.

S3: I like to tell stories in many , many , many different mediums , and Stage is a unique theatrical medium that allows me to tell a very specific kind of story and and have the actors and performers interact with the crowd. There's something about sitting in , for me , at least the back row , because I always sit in the back row when I'm watching my own play on opening night and I'm as much watching the audience as I am watching what's going on on stage and seeing that interaction , seeing that reaction , I don't know. It just it kind of sets off some kind of like endorphin in me that makes me very satisfied because I actually see my work connecting with people in real time.

S2: So Spider-Man , let's talk about that for a little bit. It's one of he's one of the most famous and beloved characters ever.

S3: It's been I mean , it's been a bit of an eye opener in terms of just fandom and being exposed to the huge world of fans of these characters who who remind you on a daily basis the responsibility that you have. But but at the same time , for me , it's just I'm always just like I said , I'm a storyteller. And I think the Spider-Man character , both Peter Parker and Miles Morales Spider-Man has always been one of my favorite superheroes , and a lot of it is I think that we all can see ourselves in Spider-Man. We connect to him a lot more than other iconic superheroes. Batman's Bruce Wayne. He's a billionaire. He's like the richest man in the city where he calls home. You know , Superman is an alien from another planet who's almost like a god on earth amongst men. And in Spider-Man is just like one of us. He's a young person. He's a kid. He's a young adult who is juggling a job or juggling school and is trying to just , you know , protect his city. And and and I think he's relatable in a way that a lot of other superheroes aren't. I've been a fan of Spider-Man since I was a little kid. And I have to say that like I was a fan just like everyone else. When I saw the first Spider-Man into the Spider-verse and , you know , I first saw it while I was still working on Soul , and I thought it was amazing. And shortly after I wrapped up on that film , I had an opportunity to meet with Phil Lord and Chris Miller. And that meeting , that chance meeting , you know , just to kind of see what I was interested in doing. I didn't even know they were planning on doing Spider Verse sequel. So when I found out and they asked me to come on board , it was an opportunity I couldn't pass up. Just this idea of continuing the story of this Brooklyn teenager. I'm from Brooklyn as well , says Brooklyn teenager Miles Morales and his family into another film. So , yeah , I just it was one of those things that you don't even realize you're going to be excited to do it until the opportunity is presented to you.

S2: Hey , I want to talk more about telling stories at the intersection of race and popular culture. So here in the 19. With sports , but also in the spider-verse. Miles Morales is a black and Puerto Rican teenage boy.

S3: So it's been incredibly helpful to me that in the years that I've been working on this project , my own teenage son went through his growth spurt in high school. So I was struggling as a parent with a teenager who suddenly seemed to have grown a foot like overnight and was as tall or taller than me when it seemed like just a couple of years before he was this little baby of mine and watching the transformation in his personality. Those are the kinds of things that really inform me as I was working on this film. And I think the kinds of things that any parent of a teenager could relate to. And one of the things that excites me so much about this film is that it's a coming of age story , but it's a coming of age story both for kids and for parents because Miles is coming of age. He's going through a transformation. But Miles , his parents are also coming of age. They're going through a transformation from having a young child to a young adult. And having lived it with with with my own kids , I feel like that's universal because I've commiserated with countless parents of all races , of all genders , and they get where I'm coming from. So there's no reason for me to believe that everyone in the world shouldn't get where these characters are coming from.

S2: And that was Kemp Powers , the playwright of the 19th , which will be on stage at the Old Globe until April 23rd.

S1: Thank you , Julia. So let's also take a look at what else is going on in the art and culture world this weekend. The LA Brothers have brought some of their incredible colorful glass sculptures to the Institute of Contemporary Art in Balboa Park. I know that you've seen this one , so tell us what it's like.

S2: So they took over the entire museum and the whole thing is super intricate. It's this cautionary tale about overconsumption. And it's also kind of a battle between Aztec gods. The first thing you see when you come down the stairs is this giant colonial atmosphere installation that looks like a moon landing. There is a lunar lander that is shaped like an Olmec statue head , and that takes up most of the museum space , actually. But around the corner is this antique dining table. It's all set up like a dinner party. There's so much going on. There's plated fake food on the plates. Looks like these toy babies made out of jelly. There's photographs embedded in some of the dishes as well. It just is this , like , elaborately dark and weird dinner scene. It's really fun to to look around this work and kind of unpack all of the details at each place setting or any of the works around the space. It's an incredible exhibit.

S1: And then there's hip hop artist and comedian Reggie Watts at the Music Box on Saturday. He's probably best known for being the bandleader on The Late Late Show with James Corden. But this is his solo stuff , right ? Tell us about it.

S2: Yeah , the best way I can describe it is it's a mix of comedy and hip hop and electronic music. His shows and his albums kind of alternate or or really journey through music and jokes. But the songs are also part of the comedy. It's all super absurd. It's really inventive and it was hard to find a radio safe cut of his work. But this is from his live at Central Park comedy album Release. It's called Treat Yourself Right.

S6: I know some of you like to sleep late at night with your laptop. Set an angle so the display isn't too bright. And yes , you get to see the rest of the movie , but you always forget and you fall asleep with the computer on your chest and sometimes it falls on the ground. Yeah.

S2: And local musician Jacqui Mendoza will open. She's from Chula Vista and she sings in both English and Spanish using synth instruments and an electric ukulele. And she has a new album that was just out earlier this month.

S1: That show is Saturday at 8 p.m. at Music Box. You can find a tales on all of these events and more at the KPBS Arts calendar. And you can sign up to get Julia's weekly KPBS arts newsletter delivered right to your inbox. I've been speaking with KPBS arts producer Julia Dixon Evans , Thanks again , Julia.

S2: Thank you , Maureen. Have a good weekend.

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A poster for the play, The XIXth (The Nineteenth)
The Old Globe
A poster for the play, The XIXth (The Nineteenth)

On Thursday on Midday Edition we're talking about arts and culture-related events and things to do in San Diego this weekend. Including, a world-premiere play, "The XIXth (The Nineteenth)," which is currently on stage at the Old Globe. The play is a fictional account based on the events leading up to and after the moment that the historic photo was taken of American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists on the podium at the 1968 Summer Olympics. We speak to playwright, Kemp Powers, who is also the director of "Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse," which is due out early this summer, and "Beyond the Spider Verse," out next year.

"The XIXth (The Nineteenth)" at The Old Globe is about the iconic protest of two Black American sprinters at the 1968 Olympic Games. Playwright Kemp Powers also cowrote Pixar's "Soul" and co-directed the forthcoming "Spider-Verse" sequels.

Then, border artists the De La Torre Brothers have brought some of their incredible, colorful glass sculptures to the Institute of Contemporary Art in Balboa Park. And, hip-hop artist and comedian Reggie Watts is coming to The Music Box on Saturday. And local musician Jackie Mendoza will open. She's from Chula Vista and sings in both English and Spanish with synth instruments and an electric ukulele. She has a new album that came out earlier this month.

A play about the drive-in, flowers meet art, Oceanside's disappearing places and more arts and culture events in San Diego this weekend.


Julia Dixon Evans, arts producer/editor, KPBS

Kemp Powers, playwright and filmmaker, "The XIXth (The Nineteenth)"