The Great White Hope

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The Great White Hope
Book cover of the play
Written by Howard Sackler
Characters Jack Jefferson
Eleanor Backman
Pop Weaver
Cap'n Dan
Al Cameron
Mama Tiny
Date premiered 1967
Place premiered Arena Stage
Washington, D.C.
Original language English
Subject Pugilism; racism
Genre Drama
Setting years before and during WWI

The Great White Hope is a 1967 play written by Howard Sackler, later adapted in 1970 for a film of the same name.[1][2]

The play was first produced by Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. and debuted on Broadway at the Alvin Theatre in October 1968, directed by Edwin Sherin with James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander in the lead roles. The play won the 1969 Tony Award for Best Play and the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Subsequent touring companies of the play featured Brock Peters and Claudette Nivens in the lead roles.


The Great White Hope tells a fictional idealized life story of boxing champion Jack Johnson, here called Jack Jefferson.[3] 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 how Sackler viewed his work. Though 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."[4]

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.[3]


The Great White Hope premiered at the Arena Stage in December 1967.[5][6][7]

The initial production at Arena Stage, paid for, at least in part, by two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, was so well received that the entire original cast, including James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander, moved to Broadway.[8] It was the first time the cast of a regional theater production was brought to Broadway.[3] The play opened on Broadway on October 3, 1968 and closed on January 31, 1970 after 546 performances.[9] Using proceeds from his screenwriting contract, Sackler substantially funded the Broadway production for some US$225,000.[4] In addition the winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Jones won the 1969 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play and Alexander won the 1969 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play, as well as the Drama Desk Award for each, for their respective portrayals of Jack Jefferson and Eleanor Bachman.[10][9]

Yaphet Kotto replaced Jones[11] and Maria Tucci replaced Alexander on September 8, 1969.[12]

In 2000, Arena Stage mounted a new production of The Great White Hope in honor of the theater's 50th season.[3]

Film adaptation[edit]

The Great White Hope was adapted by Sackler for a film released in 1970, directed by Martin Ritt, starring James Earl Jones, Jane Alexander, Chester Morris, Hal Holbrook, Beah Richards and Moses Gunn. Jones and Alexander, who both had starred in the theatrical version, each received best actor Academy Award nominations for their performances. The Oscars for their categories were ultimately presented to George C. Scott for Patton, and Glenda Jackson for Women in Love.

In the movie, "the Kid," or the "great white hope", was played by the professional heavyweight boxer, James J. Beattie (6'9", 240 pounds), the #10-ranked world heavyweight contender and an Ali sparring partner.

"The great white hope"[edit]

The term, "the great white hope," reflects the racism and segregation of the era in which Johnson fought. Johnson, the first African American to hold the World Heavyweight Championship title, was the best fighter of his generation. Yet, white reaction against Johnson's win and his very public relationships with white women was so strong that, in 1912, the United States Congress, concerned that scenes of Johnson pummeling white boxers would cause race riots, passed a law making it illegal to transport prizefight films across state lines.[13] "The great white hope" is a reference to the boxer whom whites hoped would finally defeat Johnson.

William Warren Barbour, who won the American and Canadian amateur heavyweight championship in 1910 and 1911, was "Gentleman Jim" Corbett's choice to be "the great white hope," but Barbour declined to take up the mantle. Some thirty years later, it was Barbour who, as U.S. Senator (R) from New Jersey in 1940, worked successfully to repeal the 1912 law prohibiting interstate transportation of boxing film footage.[13] About thirty years after that, William Warren Barbour's nephew, Thomas Barbour, played four small parts, including Sir William Griswald, in the Broadway production of The Great White Hope.[10]

The first "great white hope" to accept the challenge was Jim Jeffries, who came out of retirement to fight Johnson unsuccessfully in 1910. Johnson's title was eventually lost to Jess Willard, a white boxer, in 1915. There was some controversy surrounding Willard's win, with Johnson claiming he threw the fight. In part because of white animosity toward Johnson, it was twenty years before another African American boxer was allowed to contend for the world professional heavyweight title. In 1937, Joe Louis defeated James J. Braddock, "The Cinderella Man", to become the second African American to hold the world heavyweight championship title.[3] Larry Holmes vs. Gerry Cooney in 1982 was the last "great white hope" bout.[citation needed]

Awards and nominations[edit]

  • 1969 Drama Desk Award Outstanding Director, Edwin Sherin (Winner)
  • 1969 Drama Desk Award Outstanding Performance, James Earl Jones (Winner)
  • 1969 Drama Desk Award Outstanding Performance, Jane Alexander (Winner)


  1. ^ Clive Barnes (1968-10-04). "Theater: Howard Sackler's 'Great White Hope'" (PDF). The New York Times. 
  2. ^ Vincent Canby (1970-10-12). "'Great White Hope' Brought to Screen". The New York Times. 
  3. ^ a b c d e "Ghost in the House: Jack Johnson's Legacy". PBS. 2005-01-11. Retrieved 2008-03-24. 
  4. ^ a b Lawson, Carol (1982-10-15). "Howard Sackler, 52, Playwright Who Won Pulitzer Prize, Dead". The New York Times. 
  5. ^ "Arena Stage History, see 1967-68", accessed September 15, 2015
  6. ^ "Great White Hope' Will Open On Oct. 3", The New York Times, May 10, 1968, p.5
  7. ^ Barnes, Clive. "Theater: 'White Hope' Tale of Modern Othello, Opens in Capital: Howard Sackler's Play Given at Arena Stage Jack Johnson Depicted as a Tragic Hero", The New York Times, December 14, 1967, ISSN 03624331, p.57
  8. ^ "Arena Stage Takes a Risk on The Great White Hope". National Endowment for the Arts. 2007-02-02. Retrieved 2008-03-24. 
  9. ^ a b "'The Great White Hope' Broadway", accessed September 15, 2015
  10. ^ a b "The Great White Hope". Internet Broadway Database. Retrieved 2009-07-10. 
  11. ^ "Yaphet Kotto Broadway", accessed September 15, 2015
  12. ^ "Maria Tucci Broadway", accessed September 15, 2015
  13. ^ a b "Boxer's Triumph". Time. 1940-07-15. Retrieved 2008-03-24. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Sackler, Howard (1968). The Great White Hope, A Play. New York, NY: The Dial Press. OCLC 451597. 

External links[edit]