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A CurtainUp DC Reviewby Dolores
The Great White
Arena Stage opened its 50th anniversary season Sept. 8 with a classic
work that made it a force in regional theatre.
The Great White Hope -- centering on the ill-fated romance of a
champion black prizefighter and his white mistress -- debuted at Arena in
1967 and moved on to become a Broadway sensation. It also marked a turning
point in American theatre -- no longer was the resident theatre dependent
on Broadway for new plays. Now it was the originator of new plays, as it
has been ever since.
As the play opens, the year is 1910 and champion boxer Jack Jefferson
(Mahershala Karim Ali) has held the world heavyweight title for two years.
Jefferson is black, and his glory is an insufferable humiliation for the
white racists in his midst. The title and the plot concern their efforts
to find and promote a white boxer to defeat Jack -- fairly or
Unable to do so, the conspirators bring him down through other means.
Thus, his love for Eleanor Bachman (Kelly C. McAndrew) becomes the agent
of his undoing, as a wily district attorney prosecutes him for violation
of the Mann Act -- transporting a white woman across state lines for
Jack and Eleanor flee to Europe, but they find no greater acceptance
there. And their love suffers from the combined insults of lost
opportunities and dwindling resources.
Given the storyline, The Great White Hope struck a nerve. But 33
years later, Howard Sackler's grim history pageant is still fresh -- and
still an enormous undertaking.
With 247 speaking parts and 21 scenes set on five continents, the
The Great White Hope is a designer's Everest and a director's
nightmare. The original production used more than 60 actors and was
budgeted to lose $50,000. Arena Artistic Director Molly Smith, who
directed, and Casting Director Eli Dawson, whittled the cast to 28, making
production possible but design even more complicated.
Then Smith and Dawson cast an ensemble of the best character actors in
Washington to carry it off. And they do -- brilliantly. Flipping in and
out of multiple parts, switching accents like hats -- they create a
pageant of characters whose color and presence fill Sackler's great
Particularly effective are Jack Kyrieleison as a corrupt district
attorney, Aakhu TuahNera Freeman, as Jack's cast-off wife, David Fendig as
a British police inspector, and Sarah Marshall as a Hungarian musical
conductor, a Cockney landlady, a hysterical boy at a prizefight, and
Eleanor's outraged mother.
The effect of all this is quite interesting. So many minor characters
underscore the ultimate insignificance of the main character, a man who,
despite his initial self-assurance, finds himself alone and powerless
among the uncaring multitude.
Which is not to say that Sackler could not have made his point a little
more succinctly. At three hours and 15 minutes, one begins to wear.
But we stay with it, largely because Ali is so utterly charming as the
charismatic Jack Jefferson.
Loosely based on black prizefighter Jack Johnson, Jack has a ready grin
and a quick mind, and he handles the press as easily as a sparring
"Are you the black hope?" a reporter asks.
"Well I'm black and I'm hopin'," Jack replies.
Later, Jack explains why he smiles so much -- he wants to let the
competition know that even though he's beating them up -- "I'm still their
It is this exuberance that seems to irritate the establishment -- both
white and black. Sackler also populates his play with characters who stand
in for the divided black leadership of the time. Clayton LeBouef as
Scipio, a prophet in African garb, warns his people of the dangers in
wanting to be like the white man. And Michael Jerome Johnson as the Deacon
fears that the success of a flashy black boxer will make "the people"
restless and dissatisfied with the lot of the common laborer.
And when a cynical promoter (Lawrence Redmond) observes: "Hit him while
he's smilin', and you could bust his jaw," Sackler's parable becomes a
tragedy of watching a young man's hope eroded and his heart destroyed
simply for having the audacity to believe that his talent deserved its
|THE GREAT WHITE HOPE |
By Howard Sackler
Directed by Molly Smith
Starring Mahershala Karim Ali with Joseph Cronin, Terrence Currier,
Denise Diggs, Conrad Feininger, David Fendig, Aakhu TuahNera
Freeman, Mark E. Gladue, Scott Griswold, Richard Heinrich, Bus
Howard, Timmy Ray James, Michael Jerome Johnson, Jack Kyrieleison,
Clayton LeBouef, Ian LeValley, Sarah Marshall, Kelly C. McAndrew,
Howard W. Overshown, Wayne E. Pretlow, Tom Quinn, Lawrence Redmond,
Joel Rooks, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Laura Sligh, Eric Sutton, Craig
Wallace and Jeorge Watson
Settings: Scott Bradley
Costumes: Rosemary Pardee
Lighting: Lap-Chi Chi
Soundscape and original music: Michael Keck
choreography: Michael Jerome Johnson
Arena Stage, 1101
Sixth St. S.W. (202) 488-3300
Sept. 8, 2000, closes Oct. 15, 2000.
Reviewed by Dolores
Whiskeyman Sept. 13 based on a Sept. 8
A Bit of Historical
Background on The Great White Hope at Arena
Stage In 1967, when Arena
Stage premiered The Great White Hope and the "sensation"
ensued, it was in spite of so-so reviews. Audiences rushed the box
office and the production moved to Broadway, where it won theatre's
"triple crown" -- the Tony and New York Drama Critics' Awards plus
the Pulitzer. It also catapulted James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander
Its themes of miscegenation and negro sexuality,
prejudice and racism, and the miscarriage of justice were truly
shocking in those days. To mount such a production took guts
and nerve -- characteristics director Zelda Fichandler possessed
then (as now) and a willingness to suffer the financial
consequences. Because Zelda and her then husband Tom who ran
the business side of Arena Stage believed so strongly in the play,
they budgeted for a $50,000 loss (more like a quarter of a million
in today's terms) and were doubly disappointed when Arena received
not one dime from the play's commercial success on Broadway and as a
movie. [This disappointment was aired quite publicly: the argument
between Tom and the playwright (who had also received a sizable
grant from the predecessor to the NEA) flowed into the pages of
Variety.-ed.] -- Susan Davidson
More information can be found in Jane Alexander's
memoir, available here.