It is certainly fitting that Arena Stage begins its 50th anniversary season by remounting “The Great White Hope,” a landmark play in American theater that accorded Arena international prestige and still ranks as perhaps its finest hour. Originally staged in the 1967-68 season, the gargantuan production included relative unknowns James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander among a 63-member cast playing 247 roles. Its 20 scenes over two acts ran three and a half hours, and the play earned the New York Drama Critics’ Award, a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize.
That’s a tough act to follow, even 33 years later. Restaged by Arena’s artistic director Molly Smith, it’s been trimmed to 28 actors, still impressive by regional theater standards, and with 19 scenes clocks in at an even three hours. In every respect, the new production scores another TKO.
Howard Sackler’s colossal epic is an uncompromising look at racism in its most virulent form. It’s loosely based on the life of black prize fighter Jack Johnson, who in 1908 became the first black heavyweight champion of the world and the subject of intense scorn as the establishment fervently sought a white boxer to win back the title. In Sackler’s play, the character is renamed Jack Jefferson and his life is chronicled through an onslaught of troubles that follow the bout. The proud and outspoken athlete takes a white woman as a lover, is prosecuted under the Mann Act, seeks refuge in several European countries and finally caves in to government demands that he relinquish his belt by taking a dive.
It is a complex tale of considerable scope, a story of love and courage amid a sea of criticism. Its initial staging was also a courageous move both theatrically and financially by Arena co-founders Zelda and Tom Fichandler, who were aided by a $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Granted, the play no longer explodes onto the stage with quite the same impact as in December 1967, when the civil rights movement was in full gallop and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was four months away from a visit to Memphis. In most respects, it registers as the historical timepiece it is, partly because Sackler has drawn virtually every white character as a vicious and single-minded bigot ready to don white hood and robe. Yet it remains a powerful reminder that racism is still part of the American landscape and of the dizzying depths to which the country once sank.
And it’s still great theater. In Smith’s capable hands, the production pulsates with life and tension as the expansive tale, written in free verse, unfolds. With most characters playing multiple roles, bustling crowd scenes sprawling into the aisles, entire scenes spoken in foreign languages, countless costume changes, hostilities inside and outside of the ring, the whole production is, well, a circus.
Precisely, and to drive home the play’s circus-like qualities, set designer Scott Bradley has created a boxing ring-sized square in the middle of the stage. Above are large strips of canvas suggesting the big top. To vary the movement and dramatize the many scene changes, portions of the stage are periodically lowered hydraulically. The production is effectively lighted by Lap-Chi Chu.
Smith has assembled a superb cast of mostly Washington-area actors. She has found an enormous talent in 26-year-old Mahershala Karim Ali, who plays Jack Jefferson. A recent graduate of New York U’s Tisch School of the Arts, he was recommended for the role by a well connected professor — former Arena chief Zelda Fichandler. The muscular and athletic Ali (yes, it’s true) moves convincingly onstage and superbly explores the part’s many facets: cocky fighter, innocent lover, oppressed victim, abusive companion and, finally, defeated opponent.
Kelly C. McAndrew is also strong as the white mistress, Eleanor Bachman, a much narrower role. She is the picture of innocence and earnestness as she ignores the era’s racial prejudices to pursue the relationship. Others of note include Joel Rooks as the manager, Wayne Pretlow as the trainer, Conrad Feininger as the sneaky newspaperman, Sara Marshall in several male and female roles and Clayton LeBouef as the voice of black defiance. Aakhu TuahNera Freeman adds a high-voltage dose of electricity as Jackson’s abandoned and revenge-seeking wife, the conscience of every outraged woman — black or white. As if the pervasive cloud of racial hatred weren’t sufficient, she infuses the production with an unrestrained edginess that is something to see.
“Hope” occupies a noteworthy slice of showbiz history for both Arena Stage and the nation’s resident theaters. It was the first major resident theater production to reach Broadway, according to Arena. It ran for 546 performances and in 1970 was made into a film, with Jones and Alexander still in their roles. Sadly, the Broadway transfer broke up Arena’s company, and the theater received neither program credits nor financial reward from the Broadway production, the film or other performances of the Sackler play it nurtured. Lesson learned. Under the late Tom Fichandler’s guidance, the League of Resident Theaters rescripted its contracts for Broadway transfers, and its members now routinely benefit from their successes.
Indeed, times have changed for Arena as it looks back over 50 years. It is now on such enviable financial footing that even at $750,000, “Hope” is not the budget-buster it once was. And in successfully tackling the production, Arena has done itself proud again.