Heavyweight boxer Max Schmeling, touted as a Nazi ideal in 1930s Germany, is best known for two highly symbolic and historically charged bouts against American champion Joe Louis. Schmeling represented fascism and white supremacy in the ring, while Louis, an African-American popularly known as the Brown Bomber, embodied democracy and equality.
While the two fighters’ intertwined story has been explored in movies and books, both men have dimensions that have yet to be teased out. In Schmeling’s case, one interesting line of inquiry surrounds his friendship with Yussle “Joe” Jacobs, a Jewish American who was his manager and promoter.
Both men worked together for more than a decade, even as the Nazi ideology and violence cast shadows over them and engulfed the world in war.
Playwright David Feldshuh (“Miss Evers’ Boys”) has crafted a drama in which he explores the friendship between the Nazi poster boy and his Jewish American manager. “Yussle the Muscle” is getting a workshop production in the Illusion Theatre’s Fresh Ink series this weekend.
“The story says more than one thing, but it’s ultimately about survival in the face of all kinds of challenges,” Feldshuh said. “These are two people from different areas and eras who manage to survive the most negative assaults on their friendship.”
Neither Schmeling nor Jacobs thought much at first of the larger political context in which they bonded and lived, Feldshuh said. Their story, much of it fictionalized by the playwright, is “small … against a big historical context.”
“These are two human beings who may not even have been aware of the size of the moment,” he said. “They saw each other as individuals, as people.”
Still, he wondered aloud: “Is there such a thing as not being into politics if you’re a professional world-class boxer like Schmeling? Of course not. Max thought of himself as only a boxer. But he loved admiration from anyone, and the Nazis used him before they cut him loose when he no longer served their purposes.”
A mangler of language
Jacobs, a footnote in history, is best known for mangling the English language. He’s famous for two phrases: “We wuz robbed,” uttered after Schmeling lost a fight, and “I should’ve stood in bed,” uttered after a cold day of baseball at Yankee Stadium.
But Feldshuh, also an emergency room physician and the older brother of well-known performer Tovah Feldshuh, sees in Jacobs contradictions that are instructive.
He saw similar complexity in the source subject matter for “Miss Evers’ Boys,” his Pulitzer-nominated play about the U.S. government’s 40-year study of the effects of untreated syphilis on 399 unwitting black men.
“I discovered that most of the white doctors involved in that study considered themselves very liberal and didn’t even know what they were getting into,” he said. “Sometimes, good people are caught in terrible situations.”
“Yussle” spans 30 years — from 1928, when Jacobs meets Schmeling in New York, to 1958, when Schmeling and Louis visit the graveside of Jacobs, who died in 1940. A fourth character is Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propagandist who opposed Schmeling’s friendship with Jacobs.
Still, the playwright is keen to note that “Yussle” “is not a Holocaust play.”
Feldshuh has his own interesting story. A native New Yorker, Feldshuh moved to the Twin Cities to study and work in the early days of the Guthrie Theater on a McKnight fellowship (his sister, Tovah, of “The Walking Dead,” followed him to Minneapolis). He worked for seven years at the Guthrie, under founder Tyrone Guthrie and into the tenure of Michael Langham. Feldshuh started out as an actor but became a director, adapting and helming the theater’s early production of “A Christmas Carol” as well as a tour of fables.
He also led workshops, and taught Bonnie Morris and Michael Robins, founders of the Illusion Theater.
One of the noteworthy things about Feldshuh is that he put himself through medical school by acting and directing.
“Of course, med school didn’t cost as much in those days as it does now,” he said.
Feldshuh sees continuities between being a doctor and a director.
“In emergency medicine and in directing, you have different content, but the practices are similar,” he said. “You have to be comfortable making decisions based on limited data. In emergency medicine, you’re not sure of the full history of a patient. In theater, you also have limited information. But in both cases, you have to be comfortable working with a team under stress.”
(Of course, a bad decision in the emergency room can result in death, while the worst thing that can happen in the theater is an audience member falling asleep.)
“When people ask me which I prefer, I usually say that I’m not particularly tied to either medicine or theater,” Feldshuh said. “I usually just say I teach at Cornell. One of the best legacies I have are the students I’ve taught over the years.”
Still, he cannot let go of theater, and the kind of research that he does to get into the souls of his characters.
“Joe Jacobs considered himself a great joke teller, dancer and singer,” Feldshuh said. “He was like a vaudevillian, and he had this incredibly theatrical life.”
One that Feldshuh hopes to capture onstage, with a lot of color and embroidery.