- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 9, 2000


When Arena Stage premiered "The Great White Hope" in 1967, the theater took a considerable chance just in presenting the play's interracial romance.
The version of the Tony Award-winning play opening the theater's new season takes more liberties with the show, like its sets that evoke a three-ring circus.
Set designer Scott Bradley says early reaction to the play reveals its lessons still need to be heard.
"A lot of people are blind to the fact that [some] things haven't changed" regarding race relations, Mr. Bradley says. "[The play] feels very contemporary."
Loosely based on the life of boxer Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, "The Great White Hope" chronicles the racial inequalities that swirled around the sweet science during the early 20th century. The production opens the 2000-01 Arena Stage season, the company's 50th, and runs through Oct. 15.
"The whole scope of the show suggests a circus atmosphere and the absurdity of what he goes through," Mr. Bradley says.
The closer you inspect the production, the deeper the metaphor runs.
The pugilist moves from town to town seeking refuge from a hostile public, like a circus pulling up its stakes every other week to entertain a new city.
Another recurring motif is rope, lengths of which can be seen dangling throughout various sets.
In one darkly comic moment, a black actor swathed in blackface uses a rope to mock lynch himself.
The ropes also suggest how Jack's life has been rigged from the beginning, Mr. Bradley says. But to soften the impact of the rope images, he tied red tassels to each piece's end.
"I like to surprise people," says Mr. Bradley, who earned a Tony nomination and a Drama Desk award for his work on August Wilson's "Seven Guitars." "And I love to do sets that aren't so … naturalistic."
"The floor itself is a backdrop … with pictures of circus imagery," he says. "Some are antagonizing; some are beautiful." But all exhibit the worn look one might find throughout a traveling circus.
Mr. Bradley first worked at Arena Stage in 1987 with "Joe Turner's Come and Gone."
Choreographer Mike Malone's ties to the play date to its Broadway beginnings. He directed the movements of star James Earl Jones and company for the original New York production in 1967.
For a young man with little theatrical experience, the job proved daunting.
"To tell James Earl Jones to [do anything] was a leap. He was so intimidating, size wise," Mr. Malone says. Not to mention the actor's prodigious pipes that gave "Star Wars'" Darth Vader his swagger.
This time around, Mr. Malone brought a more relaxed demeanor to the project.
"I was confident I could do it with more maturity," says Mr. Malone, a professor and coordinator of Howard University's Musical Theater Program. The veteran choreographer also helped found the Duke Ellington School of the Arts.
One of his tasks for "Hope" was to convey the lack thereof for the tragic couple.
"The movements I had to use were deliberately degrading to the characters," he says, which made enjoying his handiwork somewhat difficult.
Not all scenes carried such stern imagery. The "cakewalk" sequence involves a celebratory dance in which the fighter's friends celebrate the opening of his cafe. The scene's high-step movements echo dances familiar to black American culture, he says.
"I tried to give it more texture than before … more detail," he says. In his past production, the actors danced in unison, a powerful vision. Now, the actors bring more individualized approaches to their parts.
For a 33-year-old play tackling the modern injustices of racism, "Hope" packs an up-to-the-minute punch.
"Racism is an ever present element of our society," Mr. Malone says. The play depicts it from both subtle moments to its more oversized, which he says is the reason the show's impact refuses to fade.

WHAT: "The Great White Hope"

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

WHERE: Arena Stage Fichandler Theater, 1101 Sixth St. SW

TICKETS: $27 to $45, with discounts available for students, groups, people with disabilities and senior citizens.

PHONE: 202/488-3300

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