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Theatre Journal 53.3 (2001) 506-508
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The Great White Hope
The Great White Hope. By Howard Sackler. Arena Stage, Washington, D.C. 16 September 2000.
When DC's Arena Stage premiered The Great White Hope in 1967--the story of championship boxer Jack Johnson's rise and fall in the 1920s--its exploration of racism seemed directly related to contemporary Civil Right's struggles. Considered a play of its time, The Great White Hope resonated with the unrest emerging throughout the US because of such explosive events as the Vietnam War, the stripping of Mohammad Ali's heavyweight title for not serving in it, and the Watts riots. The Great White Hope dazzled DC audiences and then went on to Broadway to win the Pulitzer Prize, the Tony Award, and the New York Drama Critics Award.
More than thirty years later, artistic director, Molly Smith, opened the Arena stage's fiftieth anniversary season with the play that placed it on the map. In this post-civil rights era, when a nation that once condemned Mohammad Ali for his anti-American politics now embraces him as an all-American hero worthy of lighting the Olympic torch, it seems appropriate to remind audiences, as Jack Jefferson (Mahershala Karim Ali) tells his lover/wife Ellie (Kelly C. McAndrew) after reporters harass them, that racism "seems to get better and worse both at once." These words encapsulate the clichéd but hauntingly accurate message of the [End Page 506] [Begin Page 508] play and its relevance to its contemporary context. This reproduction came at a moment in history when two of the most famed media spectacles to date highlighted "trials" of black men: the OJ Simpson murder trial and the Clarence Thomas US Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
The play's opening scene both distanced and implicated viewers from the not-so-long-ago past. (The Supreme Court overturned the illegality of interracial marriages in the Loving v. Virginia case in 1967--the same year as the play's premiere.) Although audience members were aware of the historical dangers of transgressing the racial/sexual lines to which Jack's trainer, Goldie, refers in this scene, this current production introduced these prohibitions when interracial sex and marriage are no longer criminal acts. Still, the focus on Jack's dark muscular body, covered only by bright white tights that highlight his embodied presence, interacting intimately with Ellie, clad in an all-white dress, marked the illicit status of their liaison. Goldie's obvious discomfort with their prolonged passionate kisses seemed to echo the larger discomfort of the audience, suggesting that their relationship, although no longer illegal, still remains disparaged.
This uneasy moment of eroticized interracial contact was quickly overshadowed by the more familiar spectacle of race enacted by Jack in front of the reporters. Eliciting hearty laughter from the racially mixed audience, Jack responded to one reporter's question about whether he is the next "Black Hope," asserting, "Well, I'm black and I'm hopin.'" Audiences used to seeing blacks perform both athletically and verbally watched as Jack explained how he must negotiate cultural stereotypes: not wanting to seem too lazy or too savage, he smiles while he beats his white opponents.
The carnivalesque set foregrounded the performative aspects of Jack's racialized role, as well as the efforts of white supremacists to stage his downfall. Every new scene opened with the trappings of a circus, starting off with easily identifiable circus music. As the play progressed, additional accoutrements were added to the spectacle, like a roving spotlight and betting sounds in the background. The most extreme staging of racism occurred when Dr. Wishbone (Howard W. Overshown), a blackface minstrel performer, ran around the ring (both the circus ring and the boxing ring) making racist jokes, full of malapropisms, and singing "coon" songs. When Mr. Wishbone lifted his hat, it became obvious that the actor was not white. He also played an African student, a Cuban boy, and a black supporter of Jack's in other scenes. (In fact, twenty-eight actors played 240 different roles in the...