THE GREAT WHITE HOPE
To celebrate fifty years of theatre going, I am highlighting the backstory of some of my more memorable trips to Broadway or London over the years. Few productions had as much an impact on me as did the one on my return to the Alvin Theatre (where I saw my very first show It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman!--see prior entry).
In April of 1969, my school (the legendary Syosset High School) sent a large group of us into NYC to see the much talked about hit drama The Great White Hope by Howard Sackler. The play, a Pulitzer Prize winner, was very much of its time--a thinly veiled retelling of the story of Jack Johnson, the first African- American heavyweight boxing champion. The title--heavyweight champ--made one, at the time, the iconic athlete on the globe. The play was topical, because Muhammed Ali currently held that position, and he was in the midst of a 3 1/2 year suspension from boxing at the height of his athletic powers because of his refusal to participate in the Vietnam War. Ali had declared himself a conscientious objector due to his religious beliefs as a member of the Islamic faith. So the subjugation of a black man by white authoritarian figures, and the search for a great white boxer to reclaim the title, resonated with an America still much tainted by bigotry. Our seats were in the last rows downstairs--group tickets at student rates--but I was transfixed by such a powerful drama long before I had any critical sense or the experience to know a good play from a bad one. A scandalous aspect of the play, which was based on Jack Johnson's story, was his relationship with a white woman, played then by a relative unknown, Jane Alexander. Near the play's end, the body of Alexander's character, is carried onstage, muddy and wet, limp in the arms of a minor character, a Mexican. He says "Threw herself down the well" and his pal continues "Done busted her neck." At this point the audience gasped and the woman sitting in front of me broke into hysterical sobbing. She was inconsolable. I knew that this was "just a play" but I also discovered that day the power of theatre to transform. Of course, it is a topic Hamlet describes at length when he meets the Players, asks them to perform a show, and reflects on the skills of actors in his famous "Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I" soliloquy. Below is a clip from the stage performance taken from that year's TONY Awards, where the play copped Best Play, Best Featured Actress, and Best Actor. It was the first time an African-American took home a Best Actor TONY.
This was a controversial scene for depicting a romantic kiss between a black man and white woman. This was just two years after the Supreme Court decision on Loving vs. Virginia, a response to the state of Virginia's refusal to allow a mixed-race married couple, the Lovings, to live together in that state! But my friend Lenie and I were more electrified by the performance of James Earl Jones. He was brash and boastful and charismatic, not unlike a certain popular sidelined heavyweight champ.
We listened to the vinyl record album--I think there were three or four records in the box set--of the stage recording. We played it continuously and Lenie and I memorized much of the dialogue. One of the most bizarre aspects of this memory is that we would often try to deepen our voices as much as possible to spout lines of dialogue. I suppose in retrospect it seemed weird for two suburban middle class white kids to be spouting "What I suppose to do? Carry her aroun' in a box like a pet bunny rabbit or somethin'?" But James Earl Jones just seemed so cool! Who knew that voice would become the iconic voice of Darth Vader one day?! Here he is accepting his TONY Award (about 1:27:00 into the show).
If you want to check out more of this show you can see Arthur Miller, Laurence Olivier, Leonard Bernstein, Dustin Hoffman, and a performance by the original cast of HAIR!
Shortly after the show began it was turned into a movie (See the poster below). The film is an effective representation of the play, but it lacks the crackle of live theatre. Still, both leads were nominated for Academy Awards.
What made the play so significant in my life, however, didn't take place until after the show was over. I believe fellow student Mark Dickerman wrote to the theatre and asked if members of the cast could talk to us after the performance. As soon as the audience left the theatre, we ran down to sit in the first few rows of the orchestra. I secured a seat in the front row! A number of actors, still in the act of removing makeup and getting out of costume wandered out to answer questions. And James Earl Jones came out from behind the curtains and sat on the lip of his stage right in front of me and Lenie! His foot bumped into my knee! He took questions, and I recall that I asked him if there were any roles he hoped to play in the future. I only remember that one of his three choices was to play the great Athlete/Activist/Singer/Legend Paul Robeson--Rutgers' own! And he did get to essay that role a number of years later. Down the road, I decided to make an effort to have performers discuss their roles with my students. That effort met with considerable success, which I will detail in a future entry. But seeing The Great White Hope still resonates with me today, nearly fifty years later.