Seldom is a brute sport like boxing married with theatrical production, and perhaps there has never been an offspring as successful as The Great White Hope, now playing at the Arena Stage.
Based loosely on the story of the flamboyant Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world, the play has returned to the stage. The play marked a coming-out party of sorts for young actor James Earl Jones when it debuted in 1970. At the time The Great White Hope, which features an intimate scene between the boxer and his white fianc?, was controversial because of its obvious racial themes. The play went on to win the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize and has stood the test of time, as the current production shows.
Marking the 50th anniversary of the Arena Stage, this provocative play introduces another future star: Mahershala Karim Ali. Ali, who has the physique of a heavyweight champ, has the dramatic ability to portray a character who is a brash, cocky hero some times and a broken-down, depressed convict others times.
Broadway stage designer Scott Bradley uses rings and rope ladders to create a circus motif on stage that shows how Johnson and his white girlfriend’s life grew to resemble `The Greatest Show on Earth.’ Other powerful performances come from Kelly McAndrew, who plays the Johnson’s girlfriend, and Joel Rooks, the boxer’s colorful Jewish manager, Tick.
Based on events that took place in the early 1900s, this play is anything but out-dated. Many of the themes, such as inter-racial romance and the role of religion in black communities, are still prevalent ideas in society. In fact, the turn-of-the-century costumes may be the only thing that distinguished the play from a modern drama. Director Molly Smith keeps the current production true to Howard Sackler’s original award-winning script, and the result is a gripping tale of love, triumph and man’s strength.
The Arena Stage is located at 1101 Sixth St., SW, three blocks from the Waterfront Metro stop. Tickets range from $27 to $45, and students receive a 35 percent discount with a valid student ID. Tickets on the day of the show are $10, but are not guaranteed. For information, call (202) 488-3300.