Oct. 20, 1934, was the darkest day in Michigan football history.
When Georgia Tech came to Ann Arbor that day, the visitors from Atlanta said they wouldn’t play the game unless Michigan benched its best player, an African-American from Detroit named Willis Ward. Teams from the South refused to play against teams from the North if they allowed a black player on the field, so Georgia Tech made the demand that Michigan had to bench Ward.
U-M athletic director Fielding H. Yost, the son of a Confederate soldier, agreed to the racist demand. He made the decision to bench Ward, and wouldn’t even allow him inside Michigan Stadium that day. The decision infuriated his teammates, most especially his best friend on the team, Gerald Ford. Ford threatened to quit the team in protest, and agreed to play only after Ward personally asked him to.
The story of Willis Ward, Gerald Ford and the 1934 Michigan-Georgia Tech game was the subject of the Emmy-nominated documentary, “Black and Blue,” which came out in 2011.
And now, the story is a stage play.
Called “Victors of Character,” the Willis Ward/Gerald Ford play was commissioned by the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation, and took the stage Feb. 15-16 at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids. They performed four daytime shows for school groups and one evening show for adults.
It was fantastic.
The play is obviously geared toward a middle school/high school audience, and it does an excellent job of bringing the story home for that age group. To my reckoning, this is the first Michigan football story to become a stage play, and we couldn’t have picked a better story to be the first one.
Heck, it might be the first football story from ANY university to become a stage play. Once again, we’re the leaders and best.
Written by Grand Valley State University professor Dr. Allison Manville Metz, “Victors of Character” relies on a minimal cast - just four people - and no real set. It’s a huge story told in a small-stage way. Director Jason J. Flannery does a superb job of bringing it all together in an engaging and entertaining way. It’s not very long, maybe 40 minutes, but it delivers the story in a powerful and memorable way. The play makes you think. A lot.
The script stays very true to the “Black and Blue” story and has some very clever elements - such as having the Yost character double as a referee who continually calls unfair penalties on Ward.
The cast is filled with Grand Rapids-area stage veterans, and they were universally excellent.
Montreal Walker (Ward) and Jesse Aukeman (Ford) have an outstanding chemistry, and are particularly excellent in a scene in which Ford wonders why Ward isn’t more outraged at what’s happening to him. (It’s also the best-written scene in the play.)
Michael Empson does double duty as Coach Harry Kipke and Old Jerry Ford, and has a great scene with Yost toward the end of the play, as Kipke confronts the Old Man for his decision to bench Ward.
And Gordon Greenhill, as Yost, is a truly compelling and controlling villain. And the script holds nothing back in casting Yost as the villain. Whatever his contributions to college football and Michigan, Yost did a despicable thing in 1934, and the play - just like the documentary “Black and Blue” - demands that we confront that.
The documentary did such a great job of spotlighting the friendship between Ward and Ford, and how that friendship informed their decisions for the rest of their lives. The play does the same thing. This was an awful thing that happened at our school in 1934, but far from being a negative story about Michigan, this is a great story about Michigan. Two great Wolverines - one black, one white - supported in each other in a way that should make all of us proud. This story makes us proud we went to the same school as Willis Ward and Gerald Ford.
Kudos to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation for bringing this story to the stage, and for keeping the story of Willis Ward and Gerald Ford alive in such a memorable way. I’m not sure what their plans are for the future with this play, but it needs to travel to every community in Michigan and beyond.
Gerald Ford was the president who made Black History Month an official designation back in 1976. That was no accident. The seeds were planted back in 1934, thanks to his friendship with Willis Ward. It’s fitting this story took the stage for the first time during Black History Month, and we need to keep it alive for generations to come.
You can watch the entire play on the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation’s Facebook page: