- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 23, 2000


''The Great White Hope" is the gladiator of plays — a monstrous, dehumanizing spectacle.
Instead of pitting slave against slave, Howard Sackler's sprawling tragedy deals with another form of bondage — bigotry. It also deals with violence as entertainment, or the glorification of the black American boxer.
Mr. Sackler loosely based "Hope" on Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world, known in the play as Jack Jefferson (played by Mahershala Karim Ali). Set in 1910, the play centers on Jefferson's tragic trajectory from fame and wealth to a loss of power, pride and passion as society exacts its price on a black man not only for being a world champion, but for being publicly in love with a white woman, Eleanor Bachman (Kelly C. McAndrew).
Written in 1967, "Hope" was notable for many reasons: The original Arena Stage production propelled the regional theater to fame, along with its stars, James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander; it also won a Tony, New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize after its unprecedented move to Broadway; and it unabashedly explored racism and interracial romance.
Artistic Director Molly Smith has revived the play for Arena's 50th-anniversary season. Yet, beyond nostalgia, why bring back "Hope" in 2000? Much has changed since the show's premiere in the late 1960s, when the civil rights movement was at its zenith. Its debut coincided with Muhammad Ali's loss of his world-championship belt because he claimed conscientious-objector status during the Vietnam War.
To believe racism does not exist in America today would be naive, yet much has changed since "Hope's" debut. The play should be restaged so millennium audiences can understand why people were so hepped up about it more than three decades ago.
Instead of reigniting the fire of the original production — if that is even possible — Miss Smith has opted for throwing on piles of spectacle and razzle-dazzle in the hope the audience won't notice the lack of emotional engagement.
Miss Smith and Scott Bradley have come up with a striking circus motif, complete with boop-boopy calliope music, a floor painted with gilded curlicues, a rope ladder and elaborate red curtains with tasseled pulls hanging down. The constantly changing circular stage, with its various configurations of brightly colored boxes and steps, at times resembles a circus main ring filled with people instead of animal acts. It also sends the message that Jefferson's plight is a foreshadowing of the media frenzies of the 20th century.
The carnival-gaudy look is continued in Rosemary Pardee's lavish costumes, which teem with feathers, trim and gewgaws of every stripe. The hats are particularly menacing, threatening to fly off the heads of their wearers like falcons going after their prey.
In some ways, the big-top leitmotif helps to control "Hope," which is a gigantic work with 19 scenes and 257 roles (played at Arena by 28 very flexible actors). But then, the production keeps busting out of its constraints, with the actors performing up and down the stairs and running through the aisles. Crowd scenes are aplenty, with Jefferson's peculiarly personal tragedy played out amid race riots, unruly mobs and rabid sports fans, in raucous cafes and in locations ranging from Reno, Nev., San Francisco and Chicago to London, Belgrade, Berlin and a barn in Juarez, Mexico.
Some scenes also are in blackface, and a Stepin Fetchit- like sequence concerning "Uncle Tom's Cabin" makes one cringe for the actors, who try to put over such moments with credibility.
But amid all the empty hubbub are some tremendous performances. Mr. Ali has the lithe and sculptured muscles of a modern athlete. He is powerful in an unshowy way and quietly exudes the strength to crush anyone who gets in his way. As played by Mr. Ali, Jefferson is a proven hero given to brooding and destructive single-mindedness.
Miss McAndrew proves a worthy match for Mr. Ali, behaving as anything but a willowy Desdemona figure under the spell of a mighty Othello. She is strong and stubborn in her provocative love for a black man, and she clings to her original commitment to stay with him to the bitter end.
Sarah Marshall proves to be inventive and delightful in a variety of male and female roles, and Wayne W. Pretlow is affecting as Jefferson's long-suffering yes-man.
Still, the question lingers: What does "Hope" say to a new audience? The idea that Jefferson's rise and fall was fueled by merciless media coverage is a piquant one, but it is not developed satisfyingly. The notion that white America cannot sleep peacefully until powerful black athletes are vanquished by white champions seems faintly ridiculous given the state of American sports and the presence of black athletes in the Olympics.
All the pageantry in the world cannot completely disguise that "Hope" has lost a lot of punch.

WHAT: "The Great White Hope"

WHERE: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday; 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Saturday; and 2 p.m. tomorrow and Oct. 1, through Oct. 15

TICKETS: $27 to $45

PHONE: 202/488-3300

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