Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Great White Hope

Karamu, Weathervane and Ensemble Theatre collaborate on ‘THE GREAT WHITE HOPE’

In a display of multi-theatre cooperation, Howard Sackler’s award winning play, ‘THE GREAT WHITE HOPE’ is being staged as a joint production of Karamu, Weathervane and Ensemble theatres.

‘THE GREAT WHITE HOPE’ is a fictional account of the real life of Jack Johnson, an African American who wins the world boxing championship just before World War I, an era of strong segregation. His defeat of the Caucasian champion stirs up prejudices. The desire of the boxing community to find the “great white hope,” a white man who can gain back the championship, is the core of the play. It is not, however the heart of the play.

The viewer watches as the boxer, named Jack Jefferson in the script, who, instead of being honored for his athletic prowess, is psychologically tortured, convicted under the Mann Act for illegally transporting a white woman across state lines for “immoral purposes.” Eventually he must flee the country.

Sackler once said of his play, "What interested me was not the topicality but the combination of circumstances, the destiny of a man pitted against society. It's a metaphor of struggle between man and the outside world."

Boxer Muhammad Ali once commented about the play, "That's my story. You take out the issue of white women and replace it with the issue of religion. That's my story!" Ali was fighting being drafted into the army at the time on grounds of being a conscientious objector.

The play opened on Broadway in 1968, ran 546 performances and starred James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander in the lead roles. Both won Tony Awards for their performances. In 1970 Sackler adapted the script into a film which also starred Jones and Alexander.

Producing ‘THE GREAT WHITE HOPE’ is a daunting task. The script has numerous scenes requiring many sets and numerous costumes. The cast is immense and must speak multiple languages. The leading performers must be masters of their trade.

Anthony Elfonzia Nickson-El is excellent as Jack Jefferson. He develops a clear and textured characterization, which displays the many moods and psychological conflicts of a man caught in the crosshairs of a prejudiced society.

Ursula Cataan is his equal as Eleanor Bachman, a white woman who falls in love with Jefferson, and is the fulcrum for many of his problems. This is a very well developed performance.

Peter Lawson Jones leaves behind his daytime role of Cuyahoga County Commissioner, and effectively transforms himself into Tick, Jefferson’s trainer and friend. This may be your only chance to see Jones as a cross dresser.

Colston Corris is excellent as Cap’n Dan.

Director Terrence Spivey needed to work with many of the supporting ensemble for the creation of reality, thus being the person being portrayed rather than acting like the person.

Richard Morris, Junior’s scenic and lighting designs are appropriate, Jasen Smith’s women’s costumes work well. Why Spivey has music underscoring much of the actions and drowning out lines, is to be questioned.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: In spite of excellent performances, the over-all effect of ‘THE GREAT WHITE HOPE’ is not up to the quality of the writing. Sometimes theatres have to be realistic. Picking a script like ‘THE GREAT WHITE HOPE,’ in spite of its relevance and historical truth, creates a daunting task. If it’s too herculean, maybe some other script choice should be made.