Sprinting Toward Understanding

Sprinting Toward Understanding

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

It was the disappointment of a lifetime. Two Jewish sprinters, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, were suddenly dropped from the U.S. track team at the 1936 Summer Olympics (known as the “Nazi Olympics”) in Berlin in favor of two African-American athletes, Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe. In “Olympics Über Alles,” a play by Samuel J. Bernstein and Marguerite Krupp, the incident becomes the catalyst for a controversial contemporary museum exhibit in New York. The play began performances last week in Midtown.

Directed by Debra Whitfield, “Olympics Über Alles” comes just a year after the release of the HBO documentary, “Glickman,” which shows how the athlete overcame the crushing disappointment of his ouster from the Olympics to become one of the great sportscasters of the 20th century.

It focuses on a modern-day Jewish professor, Steve Feinstein (Tim Dowd) who pressures a Catholic museum curator, Kate McCarthy (Amy Handra), to devote an exhibit to the Glickman-Stoller episode. But the curator sees the proposed exhibit as at odds with her museum’s focus on the history of underprivileged groups in America: African Americans, Asian Americans and Latinos.

As the play moves between 1936 and the present, it shows how exclusion and lack of empathy can be at play in both political and personal contexts. As the professor and curator wrangle over their different perspectives, a relationship between them begins to blossom.

Bernstein is a longtime professor of English at Northeastern University; Krupp is a former student of his who now also teaches at Northeastern. In an interview, Bernstein said that the play, which is based partly on Glickman’s 1996 autobiography, “The Fastest Kid on the Block,” is about the “inability of people to see through their own backgrounds, upbringings or life orientations to find value and beauty in others. Ultimately, the professor and curator go from exploring the issues surrounding the exhibit to learning about each other’s families, religions and beliefs.”

Scholars continue to debate whether or not anti-Semitism motivated the roster change, although Avery Brundage, who was the chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee, was a member of the America First organization, which was virulently pro-Nazi. Allen Guttmann, an emeritus professor at Amherst College and an eminent historian of the Olympics, told The Jewish Week that the change was most likely made simply to favor Owens and Metcalfe, who had been members of assistant head track coach Dean Cromwell’s team at the University of Southern California.

Nevertheless, Glickman told historian Peter Levine in the 1980s that he was still irate at both Brundage and Cromwell for “not allowing an 18-year-old kid to compete in the Olympic Games just because he was Jewish.”

“Olympics Über Alles” runs through Sept. 21 at the St. Luke’s Theatre, 308 W. 46th St. Performances are on Wednesdays at 2 p.m., Thursdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 1 p.m. For tickets, $39.50, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.

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