Arena Stage Takes a Risk on The Great White Hope

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Photograph of an African-American man and a White woman facing each other in a heated exchange. A table is situated between them and a boxing punching bag can be seen in the background.

The NEA funded the original production of Howard Sackler's The Great White Hope, starring James Earl Jones and future NEA Chairman Jane Alexander. Photo courtesy of Arena Stage.

1967Washington D.C.'s Arena Stage celebrated its 50th anniversary season in 2000 with a revival of Howard Sackler's The Great White Hope . Nearly 33 years earlier, Arena Stage established its national reputation by staging the first production of the controversial classic. Loosely based on the life of African American boxer Jack Johnson, renamed Jack Jefferson in the play, The Great White Hope explores the nature of racism and racial conflict in American society. Set in the early 1900s, Sackler's play not only chronicles Jefferson's boxing career, which leads him overseas because American white boxers refuse to compete against him, but it also deals with Jefferson's interracial relationship with a white woman. The play's title refers to the boxing establishment's hope that a white boxer will come along who's talented enough to discredit Jefferson. The Great White Hope debuted as part of Arena Stage's 1967-1968 season. The leads were played by newcomers James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander (who later served as chairman of the Arts Endowment). Sackler's epic boasted 247 speaking parts and 21 scenes set on five continents. The theater budgeted for the play to result in a $50,000 loss because of the divisive content and the enormous production budget. Arena Stage was supported by two NEA grants around that time: a 1967 grant of $25,000 to support a playwrights experimental theater and a $22,5000 resident professional theater program grant in 1968 to support the production of new plays. Both grants were instrumental in the play's development and production. It's been reported that reaction to The Great White Hope was so strong that some of the actors received death threats. Still, Sackler's work moved to Broadway, one of the first times a regional theater had sent an original production to Broadway. (Curiously, at the time, Arena Stage wasn't credited for having developed the show.) The Great White Hope won three Tony awards for best play, actor, and actress. Sackler's script also won a New York Drama Critics' Circle Award and the 1969 Pulitzer Prize. In 1970, the play was made into an Academy Award-nominated film, again starring Jones and Alexander. In a 2000 news interview Molly Smith, Arena Stage's artistic director, noted that The Great White Hope is no less powerful in the 21st century than it was when the theater first took a chance on it. "I'm hearing things [from audiences] like 'Boy, this is a hard play to see, and yet it needs to be told now."