‘Dancing With Giants’ A Tragedy About Optimism

In 1928, Joe “Yussel the Muscle” Jacobs, a Jewish boxing promoter in New York City, became the manager of the German heavyweight boxer, Max Schmeling. Schmeling is best remembered as the man who fought Joe Louis in two legendary matches. In the first, in 1936, Louis lost to Schmeling in the 12th round. In the 1938 rematch, in what was then called the “greatest fight of our generation,” Louis knocked Schmeling out on the first round. Dancing with Giants tells the story of the improbable friendship between Schmeling and Jacobs that persisted against all odds, as well as the friendship between Schmeling and Louis (who also had a Jewish manager) that developed after Jacobs’ early death at the age of 43.

David Feldshuh, the acclaimed author of the play, Miss Evers’ Boys, uses the salient events in the lives of these historical figures as a framework to tell a story about human relations, but it is the portrait of Jacobs that gives the play its power and tremendous pathos. Feldshuh presents Jacobs as a smart aleck, street smart, haimisher Mensch, who foolishly, tragically overreaches.

Jacobs (Tovah Feldshuh) defies current day categories of personality and identity. He was the Jewish son of Hungarian immigrants, but his charm will easily be lost to those who didn’t know a Zayde or the kind of great uncle who schmoozed with everyone or who made bets over whether he could get you to laugh. Jacobs wore his hat tipped forward and waved a cigar. His speech was riddled with euphemisms and malapropisms. Jacobs loved to dance, and would start dancing at the least provocation.

Jacobs and Schmeling (Sam Bardwell), and to a lesser extent, Louis (Ricky Morisseau), form the core of the play. The fourth character is the Nazi Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels (James Cunningham). The play ranges from 1928 to the late 1950s. It begins with the first meeting between Schmeling and Jacobs. The highlights of the characters’ lives are noted – for Schmeling, including not only the famous fights with Louis, but also his becoming the first person to win the Heavyweight Championship by disqualification, when his 1930 opponent, Jack Sharkey, knocked him down with a low blow. (Schmeling became known as the “low blow champion.”) The play ends with a visit by Schmeling and Louis to Jacobs’ gravesite some 20 years after their last fight.

Dancing with Giants presents a beautifully-layered portrait of a kind of man and a kind of sensibility that is lost to the world. Jacobs was a person of his moment: dressed in a slightly flashy loose suit, donning a hat, and waving a cigar. He was a schmoozer and a deal maker, always with a twinkle in his eye. He talked constantly, and he loved to tell jokes. Being funny was “one of his specialties,” he says. He could think on his feet. He was a problem solver. “I’m a fixer. It’s my specialty.” He was a kibitzer, an uninvited guest who made himself at home, a man who believed that if he could just sit down with a person he could disarm them with his jokes, and get them to see the light.

He was the kind of person, found among the first generation of Jewish (and non-Jewish) immigrants of that time, who relied almost entirely on street smarts and charm and a talent for improvisation, a type with the salesman’s gift of getting along and, if lucky, getting ahead. Jacobs made promoting his clients into a kind of art. He could come up with slogans on the spot that would catch on with the press and the public. “We wuz robbed!” was his famous response to one controversial Schmeling loss.

Improvising worked so well and for so long that Jacobs must have started to believe that he could improvise his way out of anything and overcome any obstacle. He perhaps thought that if could just sit down with Hitler, he could get the leader to see how wrong he had been about the Jews. In the play, Jacobs asked Schmeling whether he can arrange for Jacobs to speak with Hitler. When Schmeling says “no,” Jacobs presses: “Who do you know?” Joseph Goebbels. And Jacobs declares that he wants to talk to Goebbels. Jacobs plans to start small. He will get Goebbels to agree to let Jacobs continue to manage Schmeling in Germany, then he will move onto making sure his own Mischpacha is protected, and then, after the two get to know one another better, they will talk about that whole Nazi thing, about how wrong they are about the Jews.

The play imagines such a meeting before Schmeling’s 1935 fight against Steve Hamas, in Hamburg, Germany. A deal is cut: while Jacobs will not be allowed to manage Schmeling in Germany (“German boxing must be Judenfrei”), Jacobs will be allowed to manage Schmeling in the U.S., and Jacobs can attend the Hamas fight, with the understanding that he will stay out of the spotlight.

Goebbels was using the Schmeling fights as proof of Aryan superiority, and when Schmeling defeats Hamas, the stadium crowd becomes a kind of Nazi political rally. As the crowd is prompted to give the Nazi salute (“Sieg Heil”), Jacobs thinks to himself, seeing the moment clearly: “I can’t stop an ocean. I must stop an ocean.” And just as the cameras are flashing, Jacobs hurls himself into the ring and sets himself next to Schmeling, to appear in the photograph giving a Nazi salute (but with his Jewish “punim” and a cigar in his hand).

Jacobs calls himself an optimist, but it is really a dangerous form of idealism. He had an excessive, stubborn, and ultimately terrifying faith in positive outcomes, and in human decency. He could not imagine human beings as bad as Goebbels or as monstrous as Hitler. It is Jacobs’ optimism, his tragic idealism, that renders him vulnerable, and that eventually crushes him. He believes that he can dance with giants without getting crushed, but he is proven wrong.

One sees the dramatist’s expert touch in not overplaying the dramatic irony. The audience almost forgets – until Goebbels makes his appearance – of the catastrophes to come. The author insists that this is not a Holocaust play, as such, but it portrays a type of Jewish sensibility that could only exist in the pre-Holocaust world. (This is persuasive but makes it puzzling why the production begins with a gigantic Nazi symbol. This undermines the “before” sensibility Feldshuh is emphasizing.)

Tovah Feldshuh gives an absolutely captivating performance. Jacobs is a role that demands, in addition to outstanding stage presence and charisma, significant restraint. It would be easy to turn Jacobs into a cartoon, a stock character from Yiddish theater. Though Jacobs at times plays up his comic “Jewishness,” none of these poses or gestures defines him. Feldshuh dignifies the character, subtly conveying the purpose of the gestures and the underlying psychological complexity. She captures the mixture of sadness and gratitude behind the twinkle. And when Jacobs turns away to daven and says Yizkor for his father, Feldshuh really seems to be praying.

For Jacobs to lose his optimism and to stop dancing, it takes something truly terrible, which hurts not himself but those he loves. When it hits him, Jacobs seems to disappear in the folds of his suit. At that point, he is no longer “Yussel the Muscle,” for who is Joe Jacobs when he can no longer dance? David Feldshuh the writer and Tovah Feldshuh the actor combine to make this a moment of tremendous pathos.

While I have elsewhere complained about the too frequent use of projected images in other Twin Cities productions, the projections of historical images referenced in Dancing with Giants work well.  The problem is there is not enough scenery to provide a sense of depth and context for the scenes: it often appears that the actors are performing a play in front of a screen. 

I grew up in Skokie, Ill., where many of the elderly residents were Jacobs-style characters, or at least clearly had been their youth. “Being funny? That’s my specialty.” Or, to a passerby, “Come here a second. Let me talk to you.” Maybe we took them too much for granted. May their memory be a blessing.

Dancing with Giants plays through Feb. 24, at Illusion Theater, 528 Hennepin Ave. N., Minneapolis. Tickets available by calling 612-339-4944, or visiting illusiontheater.org.