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Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2008 | The Cassius Carter Centre Stage, converted to depict a boxing ring, filled for a matinee performance last week with an audience that wasn’t your normal Old Globe theater crowd.

They were high school-aged students from alternative schools around the county. One was the Sports Academy at the Jackie Robinson YMCA, which is part of the San Diego County Juvenile Court Schools.

The Old Globe’s education program invited the male and female students to see “In This Corner.” It’s the story of two boxers, African American Joe Louis and Nazi-era German Max Schmeling, and their epic matches staged against the backdrop of World War II’s ominous approach.

Before the lights dimmed, the students were cautioned to remain silent for the actors to perform their craft. It was a reasonable concern; nearly all of the students were seeing a play for the first time. Did they know the difference between a juvenile comedy at the movie theater and a profound play?

Turns out no one needed to worry. The kids may have rough edges, but they sat in rapt attention. The story and performance were that good.

Only a couple of times did a kid make noise, and you quickly heard a sharp “Shhh!” The students policed themselves.

“I didn’t expect that kind of a story between a black guy and a white guy,” said Andres Gallegos, a senior at the Sports Academy.

Alex Philpott, a sophomore, added: “It wasn’t normal for those times.”

Michael Brunker, executive director of the Jackie Robinson YMCA, and Charles Mohammed, a Sports Academy teacher and a former Lincoln High and Utah running back, said the students could relate to the conflict and eventual friendship in the story.

“We have 52 sets of gangs in our service area,” Brunker said. “These are kids learning to get along and transition back into traditional schools.”

Before the play began, one of the students asked me if he would see real punches exchanged during the boxing scenes. But by intermission, they knew better. When I asked what they thought the play was about, they replied, “History.”

They had learned that a sports story 70 years ago could deal with discriminations, stereotypes and challenges that they see in life.

When Louis avenged his 1936 loss to Schmeling two years later, he was black man in Jim Crow America suddenly elevated to an All-American hero for beating a man considered an evil Nazi.

The students soon learned that neither label was the full story.

On Louis’ rise up, he still encountered discrimination despite his status as an American icon. In one scene, he was unable to enter a nightclub to see a singer he knew perform because of the color of skin.

They learned that although Schmeling was perceived as a villain by Americans rooting for Louis to beat him, he was a man that had saved two young sons of a Jewish friend by hiding them from the Nazis.

They listened as the play told how Louis lost everything and was used by people around him, including the U.S. government.

Schmeling, meanwhile, incurred the wrath of Hitler for what the Nazi leader, espousing Aryan supremacy, considered the disgrace of losing to a black man. The Nazis enlisted him as a paratrooper, and he was wounded in the war.

But the play ends with Schmeling, now wealthy as a Coca-Cola executive in Germany, and Louis, committed by his son to a mental institution, reunited decades later in a bond of friendship based on their competition in the ring.

To help the students relate to the story, the Old Globe invited Paul Vaden, a former IBF world junior middleweight champion, to speak after the play. Vaden, the only San Diego-born boxer to win a world title, grew up in the same neighborhoods as the students and got his start in boxing at the Jackie Robinson YMCA.

“Having Paul here lends credibility,” Brunker said.

Vaden told them Louis’ success as a black American long before the civil rights movement helped open the first doors for others, like him, that came later.

He also explained the difference between fighters and street fighting.

Fighters compete and walk away from each other with newfound respect.

“I wish more kids could get involved in boxing,” he said. “You can wash away a lot of trouble with three minutes in the ring. If you’re involved in non-productive things, you’re wasting your time. You’re creating a negative image. Why give society the chance to label you in a negative way?”

By the time the lights went up on the Cassius Carter Centre Stage, the students learned society’s labels didn’t tell the full stories of Joe Louis and Max Schmeling.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org‘s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions and an occasional writer for Chargers.com. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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