Tick: Lively times, I can hear you comin’! Boy, you ’bout to win the Fight of the Century!
Jack: Yeah, or else lose and be the nigger of the minute.
In June of 1967, the United States Supreme Court ruled against state laws banning interracial marriages. In July, 26 people died during race riots in Newark, N.J., and 43 people were killed in a five-day uproar in Detroit. In Vietnam, the number of American troops and American casualties were higher than ever. Germane to both the war abroad and the racial strife at home, heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali beat Ernie Terrell and Zora Folley, but was stripped of his title when he refused to join the Army because of his religious beliefs.
These were the lively times from which Howard Sackler’s The Great White Hope emerged, becoming an almost instant theatrical legend. It was, and remains, a heavyweight drama, with a genuine heavyweight boxer as its central character: Jack Jefferson, modeled on the early 20th-century champ Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champ of the world. The play has over 200 characters and 19 separate locales, following Jefferson—a flamboyant, fiercely independent figure—from sporting glory and high living to exile and ultimate defeat at the hands of a white society that unites with almost monolithic force to dethrone him. The work is epic, poetic, daring (one entire scene is written in French) and continually pugnacious. Sackler even took some of the play’s arguments straight to the audience by having actors deliver key lines (indicated in the script by italics) right to the patrons.
It was a tremendous challenge for Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage to produce The Great White Hope in 1967, requiring a sort of “damn the obstacles, let’s make art” commitment that separated Arena and its not-for-profit brethren from the commercial theatre. Thirty-three years later, it’s still no walk in the park for Arena, which is reviving the play—the company’s most prestigious triumph and a seminal moment in America’s regional theatre movement—as Arena enters its 50th season.
“It’s a marathon every day,” says director Molly Smith after three weeks of rehearsals. Before the process, Smith (who begins her third year as Arena’s artistic director after two seasons of new box-office highs) said, “I was shocked at how fantastic the play is. It’s so modern. Someone described it the other day as Brecht-meets-Othello-meets-the Greeks. And I think there are qualities of each one of those within the play.”
One of the heroes at the Arena this time around is Eli Dawson, whom Smith calls the theatre’s “very savvy casting director.” Dawson figured out how to do the play with 28 performers; since the theatre can hire a total of 85 or 90 actors for this eight-show season, The Great White Hope will eat up an astonishing one-third of Arena’s performance budget this year.
Yet in 1967, director Ed Sherin’s production used 63 actors, a figure that boggles minds at Arena these days. (“Where did they put everyone?” one wide-eyed staffer wonders.) Taking on The Great White Hope was sure to cost Arena more money than it could possibly earn back, even with grants and sold-out houses. Arena co-founder and producing artistic director Zelda Fichandler (who ran the theatre for its first four decades) and her late husband, Tom Fichandler (then the theatre’s executive director), budgeted the show to lose $50,000, even though they were armed with a $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
But the choice quickly paid off in acclaim. The Great White Hope was surrounded by hoopla as it made its way from Arena in 1967 to Broadway in 1968, and then to the screen in 1970. Nowadays it is utterly wrapped in lore. The script won Sackler a Pulitzer Prize and a ton of money. The show brought Arena—then in its 17th season—a new level of national exaltation (though no financial windfall, despite the theatre’s key role in the development of the script). The star, James Earl Jones, got his name above the title on a Broadway marquee for the first time; both Jones and co-star Jane Alexander catapulted to notable careers in movies and on the stage. Sherin, who directed the play at Arena and on Broadway (and who is now a director and executive producer on NBC’s Law and Order, and Alexander’s husband), remembers opening night: “Bill Cosby, who was standing next to me in the back of the auditorium in the Alvin Theatre, walked over, put his arm around me and said, ‘Man, you’ve got the biggest hit of the century!'”
Coates: And you’re amused, sir, when this lady refers to these dances coming into vogue since this man’s arrival here, but read your Plato,Sir William, read your Plato—
Sir William: I say—
Coates: “New modes of music herald upheavals of state,” sir—
The smashing success of the transfer, underlined by Tony awards for Sackler, Jones and Alexander (as Ellie Bachman, the champ’s white girlfriend), marked the beginning of the end of Broadway as the cradle of new drama—which now, of course, is conceived and birthed almost exclusively in regional theatres. But Sackler’s script didn’t exactly look like a sure thing right out of the gate.
“The whole theatre was against doing it,” Fichandler says. “It was fragmented. You couldn’t tell what it was—it was literary.”
Says Alexander, “It was very, very thick. It took me a long time to read. I said, ‘It ends so peculiarly.’ And Ed said, ‘Jane, that was only the first act.'”
Arena had produced a Sackler play, Mr. Welk and Jersey Jim, on a bill of one-acts during the 1965-66 season. Sherin had directed it and had become close with Sackler, who was also a respected poet and screenwriter (his credits include two Stanley Kubrick films, Killer’s Kiss and Fear and Desire). Sherin admired Sackler’s “very carefully scanned dialogue,” and recalls, “He never assigned the character’s name to a speech. So when he went back over the work, speech would have to illuminate who was speaking. That’s the reason his characters all speak with such explicit natures.”
Sackler’s primary occupation up to that point had been as the founder and director of Caedmon Records, a London-based outfit for which he created a large number of spoken-word recordings of plays, many of them Shakespearean. Sackler, who died in 1982, said in a 1975 interview with Lewis Funke that his immersion in Elizabethan drama rubbed off on the writing of The Great White Hope. Sherin makes a more specific comparison.
“In Howard’s thinking, Jack Jefferson is a Coriolanus-like man. In fact, the structure of the play is very much like Coriolanus: It’s about a man who essentially moves out of his tribe and gets clobbered. And in Howard’s mind, it wasn’t about black-white. The historical circumstances made that the paramount issue in the play. But it’s not. And it taps off white guilt about the way the black man was dealt with, but that was not Howard’s position at all. He wrote a play about a tragic hero, somebody who oversteps himself—as Coriolanus did.”
For her part, Alexander sees a strong connection between the play and the politics of the moment. “It was only really brought home to me that it was a lot about Muhammad Ali when he came to see the play in New York three times. He loved it. He came backstage and gathered the whole company together; he never looked at me once.” Alexander slips into a pretty good impersonation of Ali’s soft voice and poetic cadence. “He said, ‘This play is about me, except for the white chick.’ It was only then that I became aware that, I think, Howard was writing more about that.”
James Earl Jones was attracted by the more timeless qualities in the play. “I have great interest in the character,” Jones says, adding that in his mind the play was “the story of a man who was up against the system.” Jones makes it clear here that “the system” can have a variety of meanings, depending on the experience of the viewer. He also responded to Sackler’s poetic writing—a facet that, in Jones’s opinion, was at its most brilliant at Arena (where the show ran nearly four hours), diminished in the trimmed Broadway version (which is the script Arena is using now), and virtually eliminated by the 101-minute movie.
But Jones was less interested in how the plot fit the larger concerns of the day. He recalls that members of the company sometimes approached him for insight on “social issues” and he responded, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” As for race: “I think that’s bullshit,” Jones says in a way that brooks no argument. “That was bullshit then, and it is now.”
Jack: (to Young Negro) Hey, man. What my winnin’ gonna do for you?
Young Negro: Huh? Oh . . . er . . .
Deacon: Give him self-respeck, that’s what!
All Negroes: Amen!
Negro One: Tell it, brother!
Young Negro: Yeah—I be proud to be a cullud man tomorrow! Negroes (general response): Amen.
Jack: Uh huh. Well, country boy, if you ain’t there already all the boxin and nigger-prayin in the world ain’t gonna get you there…
Zelda Fichandler—who founded the theatre with her husband Tom and Edward Mangum partly as a reaction to the refusal of Washington, D.C.’s National Theatre to integrate in 1948—says of the 1967 social turmoil, “I was very conscious of it. But because my orientation is very psychological in the theatre, I also felt it was the story of any outsider in a culture. And it was a story of repression that had larger than contemporary reverberations. My interest was always in the human story against the panorama of the society. That’s why we did large-cast plays, and why our budget went up and why plays now don’t deal with that. The fact that we’re underfunded around the country means we can’t deal with that subject in the same way.”
In her program notes, Fichandler wrote about the play’s clear contemporary relevance, but added that it “also tells us of things that have no one time or place: of a man’s need to work at what he wants and love where he wants, and of the enemies of these needs within and without.” It was impossible to keep the enemies “without” from resonating with almost deafening power. On Dec. 8—the day after the play had its first preview in Washington—Richard Nixon declared that he feared a race war would dwarf America’s involvement in Vietnam.
“It’s always easier to look back at something and see the patterns,” Alexander says. “But we were right in it. And when you lived in Washington, as our company did—I mean, those were the times when the streets were burning sometimes at night. There were curfews. We all had to be in at a certain time, and if you were under a certain age, you had to be in by nine o’clock. We were aware of all those things, and then we were at the seat of a very complicated situation in Vietnam. We were in the cauldron.”
The play got a decidedly mixed review from the Washington Post‘s Richard Coe. He called it “the most ambitious of Arena’s 149 productions,” but he also wrote that the play lacked “self-discipline.” “This,” he wrote (in a line Fichandler today grimly quotes almost verbatim), “in theatre as in life, is where you tell the men from the boys.”
Nonetheless, the houses filled up, and New York critics and producers were soon sniffing around. Says Fichandler, “I think the subject matter interested people. And the horrendous impact it made on Washington—I mean, when the lights came up in December 1967 on a black man and a white woman in bed in Washington, D.C., you could hear, audibly, the intake of breath. That intake of breath is what rode northward.”
Stenographer: Makes your hair stand up,don’t it?
Detective: She’s like a kid with a piece of chocolate cake.
Between the time the play finished its scheduled run in Washington, D.C., and opened on Broadway in October of 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated. More American cities went up in flames—Washington among them. Once the play opened in New York, Alexander began to receive threats. It had happened to her before at Arena, but on a different play, John Arden’s Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance.
“I had laid under a blanket simulating making love with a guy,” Alexander says. “And I got some really bad mail about that, as had the theatre. So I expected when I was in Washington that I would get terribly bad mail. I didn’t get anything. When I went to New York, I got tons of mail from white bigots, and two death threats.”
At the same time, something distressing was happening inside the theatre. “The audiences in New York began as predominantly white audiences,” Alexander reports, “and by the end of the year they were predominantly black. And the whole tone of their reaction changed. The white audience was very, ‘Yes, yes, we’re very racially understanding,’ patting themselves on the back and cheering about the play and all that. And then the black audiences looked at my character as the trouble—the total troublemaker who had caused all the problems for this guy, which in some ways is true. And they used to boo me, and they used to cheer when I died. And this was very hard for Jimmy to take, because he saw the play as a love story as much as anything else, and was very angry that the black audience could not get past my color.”
Jack: Why you think Ah ain’t put a han to ya for how long, why ya think it turn me off juss lookin atya—
Ellie: Stop it—
Jack: You stayin, stay for it all—ya know why? Does ya, honeybunch? Cause evvy time you pushes dat pinch up face in fronna me, Ah sees what it done got me, dass whut Ah lookin at, the why, the wherefore an de Numbah One Who, right down de line, girl, an Ah mean YOU, an Ah doan wanna give you NOTHIN, unnerstan? Ah cut it off firss!
Ellie: Oh, I despise you—
Jack: Right, like alla resta ya—
Ellie: Oh, I’d like to smash you—
Jack: Me an evvy udder dumb nigger who’d letya! Now go on home an hustle up one who doan know it yet, plenty for ya, score em up—watch out, brudders! Oughta hang a bell on so dey hear you comin.
Ellie: You mean this?
Jack: Look in mah purple eyes.
When The Great White Hope moved to Broadway, the good news for Arena was that a play that the company believed in was going to get a wider audience in New York and then on film. The bad news was that the theatre wouldn’t net a dime from the success and would see its acting company evaporate in the bargain.
“I had had absolutely no thought of anything happening to this production,” Fichandler says. “Absolutely no thought of it causing all of this brouhaha and going to New York and being made into a film and losing my company and losing my associate artistic director [Sherin]. That was just a big surprise.”
Herman Levin, who had produced My Fair Lady, would produce The Great White Hope in New York. Sackler put up $220,000 of the $275,000 in return for 75 percent of the profit. (Ironically, the new Theatre Development Fund, supported in large part by the NEA, made the commercial incarnation of The Great White Hope one of its first beneficiaries by buying $10,000 worth of tickets to give to students.) Arena was not in the mix.
“I asked for no percentage,” Fichandler says, “because it never occurred to me.”
Belatedly, Arena sought 10 percent, and was rebuffed.
“I can’t tell you the rage,” Fichandler says, “because I had hurt Arena by not asking. It wasn’t just personal. I had been bad in defending the rights of Arena. I felt betrayed, but I also felt guilty.” This, of course, became the great “cautionary tale,” as Fichandler puts it, for other regional theatres placing work in New York. It would be nearly a decade before the New York Shakespeare Festival would establish the inverse model with A Chorus Line: a carefully workshopped nonprofit creation that evolved into a long-running cash cow, pouring a steady royalty back into the theatre’s coffers.
The problems of “enhancement money” and the limits (or lack of limits) of corporate sponsorship were a long way off. But they would come, because something new was beginning to happen: ideological adversaries (to be taxed, or not to be taxed, and all that fell therefrom) were finding themselves in bed with one another. And though it distorts things to characterize Broadway strictly as the seat of mind-numbing fluff for the proverbial tired businessman, the differences were real. Fichandler says that Arena was “set up in sort of a—I hate to say protest, but as an alternative way of doing theatre.”
Says Gordon Davidson, whose production of In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer at the Mark Taper Forum moved to Broadway (the Lincoln Center Theater) the same season as The Great White Hope, “I didn’t think that Broadway was the enemy. There were people who wanted to blow it up or burn it down—Julian Beck [of the Living Theater] and people like that. I just think it was a place that didn’t open its doors. They didn’t believe in what we were trying to do. And the small miracle was that suddenly a variety of people were interested in the process by which we [regional theatres] developed the new play.”
According to Davidson, Broadway has since become “more cowardly—but I understand that cowardice. It’s the cowardice of, ‘Look, we’ve got to raise a million dollars, not $150,000. We need big investors, not limited partners.’ I think there isn’t such a thing as a limited partnership in the structure of Broadway. I think there are major investors who all want to be producers on the top, so you have seven, eight, nine, ten names, instead of… what’s the name above Great White Hope? Herman Levin. Those days are gone.”
They have been replaced by days in which nonprofits do the dirty work of development and in which everyone acknowledges the scramble for money, days in which the dominant issue—by a mile—is whether nonprofits behave any differently from commercial theatres. The same week Smith began rehearsals for The Great White Hope, the Roundabout Theatre’s evolution into a splashy Broadway presence in the American Airlines Theatre (nee the Selwyn, the name changed for $8.5 million, with a $500,000 Nabisco lounge available to big donors only) was the subject of a controversy-stirring piece in the New York Times.
Of course, a little gold plaque near the box office and a logo in the program will tell you that USAir is the official airline of Arena Stage.
Says Sherin, “The regional theatre is an organism. And if you know biology, you know that an organism keeps changing, and it sloughs off that which it cannot use. And in that way, it transmorphoses, becomes something else. If the regional theatre now was what it was 20 years ago, it would be dead. So it is what it is today out of necessity, and appropriately.”
“Economic necessity,” says Fichandler, “the iron framework of fact, tends to pressure things toward the bottom line.”
Ellie: Oh, Jack. It gets awful,doesn’t it?
Jack: I dunno about that. Seems to get worse and better both at once.
As for acting companies—well, it can be argued that The Great White Hope might not have come into being without one. Sackler “knew we had an acting company,” Fichandler says, “and basically the company was the core of the play.” (That core was augmented with non-Equity community performers.) Companies came as part of the repertory ideal, which was part of the radical alternative to Broadway that the new nonprofits were touting.
Fichandler had assembled an integrated rep company prior to The Great White Hope, and although there were fine productions, she says now that it was a failure. “White actors were displaced from roles they wanted. Black actors were not at that time happy in Western classics.”
Still, Arena clung to the company model until the early 1990s, when it became clear that the most talented actors almost certainly will, sooner or later, be lured away by greater fame and fortune in New York or Hollywood. At some point in the intervening decades, it also became prohibitively expensive to hire a true company of actors to full-season contracts. A few actors from that Great White Hope company returned to Arena—notably Robert Prosky, Tana Hicken and Richard Bauer (who put in 30 years with the theatre before he died in 1999). Ned Beatty and Robert Foxworth moved on, but it’s worth remembering that a lot of the key performers (the incomparable Jones, Hector Elizondo and others) were hired guns.
Smith’s “company” for this season’s The Great White Hope features a number of Washington actors, but the leads come from out of town (Mahershala Karim Ali as Jefferson, Kelly C. McAndrew as Ellie), and the design team is largely fresh to Arena. The word “company” has lost its viability; it has been replaced by the deliberately nebulous phrase “associate artist.”
Jack: Man, Ah ain’t tried to start nuthin.
All of which is to say the obvious: it’s not 1967 anymore. And 1967-68 was a large part of what made The Great White Hope what it was. The play captured a social moment as few plays have ever done.
“But that’s a trick of history,” Sherin says. “A confluence of many things. This was The Perfect Storm of theatre: this happened, that happened. Nobody could have predicted that I would have gotten James Earl Jones, and that James would have been so wonderful, and that I would be directing it and that the blacks would start burning down the inner cities. Who had control of that?”
Because of history’s tricks, Sherin is wary of inflating the show’s legacy. He argues that The Great White Hope is worth remembering primarily because of Sackler’s brilliant writing. “There are things in that play that are sublime,” he says. “No one gets near that kind of writing anymore.”
And that is a large part of why Molly Smith picked the play: for its enduring power and poetry and insight.
“Sackler did not see the play in racial terms,” Smith tells her troupe at the first rehearsal. “I do. It is a subject which is fully explored in the play—attacked, and revealed.” In a line that almost echoes something Fichandler wrote in the 1967 program, Smith asserts that race “continues to be the most important subject we can deal with.”
The design team and dramaturg Cathy Madison’s literary department have immersed themselves in research on the play’s period. By the first week of August, Smith is drilling her cast on “story beats,” helping them find the ideas that need to be emphasized. The atmosphere in the rehearsal hall is easy but tightly focused; there is far too much material to master for anyone to waste time. Scott Bradley’s set design will feature a circus motif, with suggestions of a great canvas tent. The outside doors on the theatre’s four corners will be used as extra entrances and exits. “What we want, literally,” costume designer Rosemary Pardee explains, “is for there to be no safe place in this room.”
Arena’s 50th anniversary season includes another Arena revival, Patrick Meyers’s 1982 K2, about two climbers scaling a dangerous peak. But much of the rest of the roster is quintessential Smith, who has promised to bring a “theatre of the Americas” to Washington. There will be Canadian work and Native American work, two new American plays, and a classic (A Streetcar Named Desire) directed by a Hungarian, Janos Szasz. The inclusivity at Smith’s Arena—which will send last season’s hit staging of Guys and Dolls, with Maurice Hines as Nathan Detroit, out on tour next year and which has commissioned new works from Hines, Paula Vogel and the performance group Culture Clash—reached a new pinnacle last spring with Nick Olcott’s production of The Miracle Worker. A fiery, hearing-impaired actress named Shira Grabelsky played Helen Keller to tremendous acclaim, and most of the performance was translated into American Sign Language by a silent chorus at the edges of the stage.
“Repertory is destiny,” Fichandler says, ticking off one of the bedrock principles of “the movement.” “What you say is who you are.”
And what does The Great White Hope say today? It is almost impossible to divorce the impact of the play from its original moment. And whether the values and virtues implied by that nonprofit creation’s storming of the commercial world in 1968 still apply in 2000 is the kind of question that can only be answered one theatre at a time, one show at a time.
Nelson Pressley is a freelance arts writer based in Washington, D.C.