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A CurtainUp DC Review
The Great White Hope

by Dolores Whiskeyman
Click here for Susan Davidson's backgrounder 

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 otherwise. 

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 "immoral purposes." 

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 canvas. 

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 partner. 

"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 friend." 

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 rewards. 
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 
Fight choreography: Michael Jerome Johnson 
Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. S.W. (202) 488-3300
Opened Sept. 8, 2000, closes Oct. 15, 2000. 
Reviewed by Dolores Whiskeyman Sept. 13 based on a Sept. 8 performance. 

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 into celebrity. 

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.

ęCopyright 2000, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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