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Play written by professor explores moment that shaped President Ford's views on social justice

  • President Gerald R. Ford (left) pictured alongside Willis Ward (right).

Posted on February 26, 2018

A new play written by a Grand Valley theater faculty member dramatizes a moment from President Gerald R. Ford's time playing football at University of Michigan that shaped his views on social justice. 

"Victors of Character: A Story of Loyalty, Integrity, and the Courage to Make a Difference" will be performed March 1 at 8 p.m. in the Linn Maxwell Keller Black Box Theatre, located in the Thomas J. and Marcia J. Haas Center for Performing Arts on the Allendale Campus. Tickets for this performance will be free, and distributed on a first-come-first-serve basis before the show beginning at 7 p.m. There will be 100 seats available.

The event is being presented in a collaborative effort between Grand Valley and the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation and Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum.

The 45-minute play, written by Allison Metz, associate professor of theater, is based on the 2016 documentary "Black and Blue" by Brian Kruger and Buddy Moorehouse. The film tells the story of the 1934 game between University of Michigan and Georgia Institute of Technology.

The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets agreed to play in Ann Arbor that season on the condition that University of Michigan could not play Willis Ward, the team's only African-American player.

"Many of Ward's teammates were outraged when athletic officials at the University of Michigan agreed to the demand," said Metz. "The most outraged Wolverine was Ward's roommate, a lineman from Grand Rapids named Gerald Ford."

President Ford threatened to quit the team in response to Ward's benching, but changed his mind after Ward convinced him that he had to play in the game.

"Victors of Character" was also performed for approximately 800 local students at schools around West Michigan February 15 and 16. Metz said the play portrays an important message for young, impressionable students.

"The play was written for young audiences so it's accessible for students of all ages to understand the nuances of race relations in the 1930s no matter the students' life experiences," said Metz. "Willis Ward is a great role model for all young people to see how people can work within unfair systems in order to figure out how to change those systems."

Clare Shubert, director of engagement and programming for the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation, said "Black and Blue" is regularly used as a teaching tool in the foundation's student programs, and she has seen first-hand the positive effect that learning this story has had on people of all ages.

"It provides lessons of character and integrity, and illustrates the responsibility we all have when faced with injustice," said Shubert. "It is important for all of us to see that many times the challenges we are walking through presently are actually preparing us for bigger things to come. 

While serving in Congress, Ford supported the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, and, as president, he presided over the first Black History Month in the U.S. 

Ward went on to work for Ford Motor Company in a role that today would be equivalent to an inclusion officer; he then became a lawyer trying civil rights cases and ultimately became the first black probate judge in Wayne County.

Grand Valley alumnus Jason James, '13, will direct "Victors of Character," and multiple alumni will fill key roles in the production. Montal Walker, '17, will play Ward; Michael Empson, '08, will play University of Michigan coach Harry Kipke; Charlene Wilburn, '17, will serve as costume designer; and the show's dramaturg will be Shavonne Coleman, '07, visiting professor of theater.

For more information about this production, contact Metz at