THE GREAT WHITE HOPE
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Robert Shaw’s 1968 Holocaust play, The Man in the Glass Booth, saying that though the script is structured around a cheap gimmick, there’s a ferocity at the heart of it that makes it worth seeing anyway. Now I’m writing about Howard Sackler’s 1968 civil rights play, The Great White Hope, and I’m saying pretty much the same thing–only a little more equivocally this time. Yes, there’s a respectable rage at work in Sackler’s play, and yes, that rage goes a long way toward heating up and animating the play’s vast bulk. But it never quite burns all the way through. It never quite transcends the gimmicks. And so this Great White Hope never quite manages to be worth seeing anyway.
A mighty peculiar result, when you consider that Sackler’s gimmicks are calculated to express rage rather than negate it. The Great White Hope isn’t the theatrical game The Man in the Glass Booth is. Sackler doesn’t tease us with mistaken identity gambits or Agatha Christie revelations. Just the opposite: he tries hard to break free of the usual middlebrow contrivances, using pseudo-Brechtian tactics–especially speeches addressed directly to the audience–as a way of confronting us with our own prejudice, our immersion in America’s racist culture.
Based loosely but unambiguously on the life of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion, The Great White Hope is shot through with angry testimony to white perfidy and black subjugation. Government agents meet to plot the champ’s assassination by litigation, hounding him halfway around the world, while fight promoters prop up one would-be white savior after another. A black nationalist prophet shows up to deliver an oration in which he asks black audience members, “How white you wanna be?” Other monologues explore the psyche of a white chauvinist, or the bitterness of a black woman whose blackness makes her undesirable. The Great White Hope is built on outbursts like these. It’s basically a succession of them, grouped in three acts and connected by the tale of the decline of Jack Jefferson, the Johnson surrogate.
Trouble is, the accusations, condemnations, and depredations get repetitive after a while–especially in this one-note Pegasus Players production, directed by Jonathan Wilson. Like a lawyer with too good a case, Sackler allows his argument to become heavy-handed and predictable. His rage–powerful but without nuance, confined rather than liberated by its form–finally consumes all the available oxygen and burns itself out. Before having burned through.
If The Great White Hope is a failure it’s at least an interesting one. Maybe even a noble one. Like its fellow veteran of ’68, The Man in the Glass Booth, it represents a mainstream attempt to get at and communicate some of the passion of the time. Sackler’s script may be set just before and during World War I, but it’s very much about the struggles of the 60s. That it can’t quite encompass those struggles–or the energies that generated them–is less an indication of defeat than a mark of authenticity.
Like Glass Booth, also, Sackler’s play depends heavily on a powerful presence in the lead role. Jack Jefferson’s got to be a sure, strong, indomitable force–not only because of the nature of the role, but because of its history. After all, it was James Earl Jones–the presence to end all presences–who played Jefferson on Broadway and in the movies.
Amazingly, Paul Mabon can handle it. His huge voice, open face, and endless energy establish him vividly onstage; while his actorly intelligence allows him to give us Jefferson in all his subtle, heartbreaking stages of decline. Mabon gets solid support from Gretchen Sonstroem, as his white lover Ellie–but most of the rest of the large cast is merely serviceable. Or worse. Valarie Tekosky, in particular, seems to think she’s projecting emotion as Jefferson’s spurned black lover, Clara, when she’s actually caterwauling, turning the part and all its opportunities into a bad joke. Byron Stewart, by contrast, makes something lively and interesting out of a strange little part as an African student marooned in Germany.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.