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'The Great White Hope,' in Championship Form at Arena

By Lloyd Rose
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 11, 2000


    'The Great White Hope' Mahershala Karim Ali is pumped in "The Great White Hope."
(Photo by Carol Pratt)
In his professional debut as black boxer Jack Jefferson in "The Great White Hope," 26-year-old Mahershala Karim Ali proves as much of a champion as the man he is playing. As soon as Ali (what a fortuitous name for an actor playing this role) enters, lithely muscled and as quick on his feet as a dancer, he shows you Jefferson's sense of play and display. This is a stylist, not a slugger – an ironist who verbally stings his white insulters, as he physically does his ring opponents, so lightly and swiftly they aren't sure they've been hit. Until they land on the canvas.

The late Howard Sackler's huge drama, a rant against white racism, was developed and first produced at Arena Stage in 1967 and made a star of the original Jefferson, James Earl Jones (and of Jane Alexander as Jefferson's mistress). Now Arena Artistic Director Molly Smith has taken on this sprawling, troublesome legend – boxing, so to speak, in its shadow. Like her young lead, she scores a knockout.

Sackler conceived his drama – inspired by, as much as based on, the career of the first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson – as an epic, spanning years and continents and written in free verse. In Brechtian fashion, he keeps the audience at emotional arm's length by devices such as having the actors address us directly or by writing whole scenes in another language.

At the same time, he pounds us over the head with the injustice of it all, setting his hero up for one low blow after another from a white society terrified of the implications of a black fighting champion. Unable to bring him down legitimately, his enemies (apparently all of white America) throw the Mann Act at him: He's made the mistake of going across a state line with his white fiancee and then making love to her.

It is love, too. Johnson himself had three white wives. But that sort of realism has no place here. It's necessary to Sackler that Jefferson and his beloved Eleanor (Kelly C. McAndrew) be babes-in-the-woods lovers who don't know the danger they're courting. But rather than innocent, they seem dim. Just possibly the middle-class Eleanor could have been this insulated from social reality, but the idea that Jefferson could have reached young manhood in such naivete is ridiculous.

To give Sackler credit, he has some idea of how this affair plays to the African American community of the play. Though Jefferson's mother (Denise Diggs) and his trainer Tick (Wayne W. Pretlow) accept Eleanor, his fans and acquaintances eye her more warily. And his abandoned common-law wife, Clara (Aakhu TuahNera Freeman), is enraged. In the first part of the play, Clara comes across as a bad-tempered joke, vicious enough to want to turn Jefferson over to the feds rather than have him live with his white woman. But later she emerges as a vengeful stand-in for all her sisters, those dismissed by Jefferson's casual remark "Everyone knows I've thrown off colored women."

Also hovering around to point out to Jefferson his sin in abandoning his own is Scipio (Clayton LeBouef), a Garveyesque figure in African garb who tends to appear at the edge of the action shaking his fist at any evidence of black accommodation to the white man's world. Occasionally he abandons his symbolic status and comes right into the play to harangue people: "How much white you pinin' for? How white you want to be?" (Understandably, considering how awkwardly he's pushed into the narrative and their faces, the black characters look at him with some bewilderment.)

Scipio must speak for the playwright, since Sackler has made every single white person in the play evil, evil, evil – except for Eleanor, a fair-minded Englishman (Richard Henrich) and Jefferson's Jewish manager, Goldie (Joel Rooks). (Given the play's political slant, you keep waiting for a denunciation of Goldie as an exploiter, but it never happens.)

In the late 1960s, white audiences must have writhed in delighted masochism at seeing their hatefulness so rawly dramatized – though their discomfort was no doubt mitigated by the fact that most of the whites in the play aren't of that enlightened class that commonly attends the theater. For black audiences, there may have been something cathartic in watching a white playwright beat up on his own, and a grim satisfaction in the play's depiction of a vast intercontinental conspiracy to bring Jefferson down. The play was always hysterical and frenzied, but initially it had timeliness on its side.

Now its overwrought elements make it seem somewhat comic. The whites run around like Wile E. Coyote, hatching one dastardly plot after another only to have them all explode in their faces. This is where Smith's idea for stylizing the play fuses brilliantly with the script. Scott Bradley's set and Lap-Chi Chu's lighting deliberately suggest a circus, with each scene presented as a new act – it's the modern "media circus," in which Jefferson's life would be reduced to entertainment. In this metaphor, the whites are clearly the clowns. Yet – and here the production becomes bleakly and bitterly absurdist – these pathetic jokes are dangerous. Laughter won't make this devil flee.

With the exception of Jefferson, the roles are one-dimensional, so McAndrew's Eleanor is rather dull and Rooks's Goldie more a collection of lovable mannerisms than a person and LeBouef's Scipio an icon rather a character. Freeman's vitality bursts through the cliches of her part as the ex-wife, and Pretlow's natural warmth makes Tick more than just the loyal best friend he's written as. Most of the 28 actors play three or four roles, and notable among them are David Fendig as a frighteningly civilized FBI bureaucrat, Sarah Marshall as a Hungarian impresario, Conrad Feininger as a reptilian journalist, Howard W. Overshown as an African prince, and Henrich, Ian LeValley, Craig Wallace, Timmy Ray James, Terrence Currier and Lawrence Redmond in a variety of small parts.

In the central role, Ali is radiant. His Jefferson is still youthfully open, happy in his art, his talent whispering to him its own truth of mastery and fortune. Seeing this brightness and joy fall to hatred and sour envy adds an extra, almost tragic level to the story of social injustice. Jefferson evokes Othello, not because of the white wife, but because we're watching a great nature be destroyed by a pettiness beneath its noble comprehension.

The Great White Hope, by Howard Sackler. Directed by Molly Smith. Sound and music, Michael Keck; costumes, Rosemary Pardee; choreography, Mike Malone; fights, Michael Jerome Johnson. With Joseph Cronin, Mark E. Gladue, Scott Griswold, Bus Howard, Michael Jerome Johnson, Jack Kyrieleison, Tom Quinn, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Laura Sligh, Eric Sutton, Jeorge Watson. At Arena Stage through Oct. 15. Call 202/488-3300.


Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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