The Great White Hope

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About The Great White Hope

The Great White Hope was written in 1967 by Howard Sackler. The play was first produced by Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. and debuted on Broadway at the Alvin Theatre on October 3, 1968 for a run of 546 performances, directed by Edwin Sherin with James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander in the lead roles. The initial production at Arena Stage was so well received that the entire original cast, including Jones and Alexander, moved to Broadway with the production in 1968. It was the first time the cast of a regional theater production was brought to Broadway.

In 1969, Jones won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play and Alexander won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play, for their respective portrayals of Jack Jefferson and Eleanor Bachman in the Broadway production. In 2000, Arena Stage mounted a new production of The Great White Hope in honor of the theater's 50th season.

The Great White Hope tells a fictional idealized life story of boxing champion Jack Johnson, here called Jack Jefferson. Acting as a lens focused on a racist society, The Great White Hope explores how segregation and prejudice created the demand for a "great white hope" who would defeat Johnson and how this, in turn, affected the boxer's life and career.

While the play is often described as being thematically about racism, this is not, entirely how Sackler viewed his work. Though certainly not denying the racist issues confronted in the play, Sackler once said in an interview, "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. Some people spoke of the play as if it were a cliché of white liberalism, but I kept to the line straight through, of showing that it wasn't a case of blacks being good and whites being bad. I was appalled at the first reaction."

In a comment, reflecting on both the racist theme dealt with in the play and Sackler's notion that the play is about a man fighting society, Muhammad Ali, greatly impressed with James Earl Jones' performance in the play, apparently commented to the actor, "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.

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