The Great White Hope
by Howard Sackler, Directed by Edwin Sherin. produced by Arena Stage (Washington, D.C.)
“I just went the whole hog, man.” This is the key to the fate of the great Negro boxer, Jack Johnson, whose history is the subject of an extraordinary new play, The Great White Hope, by Howard Sackler. This work is completely open, within the reach of the largest or the smallest audience; it is dramatically and artistically powerful and moving. From the moment James Earl Jones, as Johnson, is first seen at the punching bag—young, confident, with an exuberant, explosive consciousness of his own possibility—to the pitiful and terrifying end when he staggers on, having thrown the world championship, his eyeballs bleeding, his cheeks maimed, swollen, accusing, his mouth a gap of blood, followed by the victor, “the white hope,” beaten to a pulp, ruined, barely alive, carried on the shoulders of some screaming maniacs: from the beginning to the end has taken four hours and twenty-five scenes. This obstinate exhaustiveness has, out of the most literal and indeed the most hackneyed material, created something of genuine symbolic force. A truly American drama, one of them at least, had been hidden all along in that exploited, drained fight world, a world whose authenticity is itself no longer capable of being uncovered, since true history and stage and film history are one. It was Howard Sackler’s inspiration to have acknowledged this, to have consciously—and that is the art of it—been content to leave it all there, corrupted, sentimentalized, full of the shabbiest folklore.
The play is described as being loosely based on the life and times of Jack Johnson, but the correspondences between the incidents on the stage and the events of Johnson’s life are more to the point. When Johnson managed, by the sheer insistence of his gifts as a boxer and the great dare of simply being himself, to win the world heavyweight title in 1908, he created in the minds of white men a huge discomfort and shame. Their search for a “great white hope” to regain the title was an eager, even a bitter, reality. The fact of having the title was one of the dramas of Johnson’s life: the other was his “association” with white girls. As he says at one point in the play, “Everybody know I gone off cullud women.” He married two white women in real life, but in the play there is only one, his mistress Ellie Bachman. Her presence is a scandal and so perhaps is the club Johnson opens in Chicago, the “Cafe de Champion.” Anti-vice groups pursue him and, as in real life, he is falsely charged and convicted on the Mann act, even though Ellie would not testify against him, nor did the girl in the real trial—she married him instead. The thought of incarceration at this very beginning of his career and at the peak of his life is too much, and he jumps bail and goes into exile abroad.
The towering, humorous, high-living Johnson in London and …