Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Great White Hope by Howard Sackler (1969)

Summary:  Sackler’s dramatization of the life of boxer Jack Johnson (named Jack Jefferson in this play).   After winning the World Heavyweight Championship in the first few pages of the play, Jack spends the rest of his life dealing with fallout surrounding this event.  The central dramatic conflict of the play is the search for a “great white hope”—a white boxer who will fight Jack and win.  After he gets into some trouble with the law (for having sex with his white girlfriend), Jack flees the country and is repeatedly approached with offers trading his inevitable jail time in exchange for throwing a fight (losing on purpose).

Thoughts:  The play is a powerful statement about race in America, race in sports, race in families and race in sexual relationships.  Interestingly, the photo on the front of the play and the text on the back of it led me to believe that this would be a play about Jack’s rise to glory—when it is actually just the opposite.  Jack is triumphant in the first few pages of the play, but the bulk of the play’s 239 pages depict his descent into depression and desperation.  A particular low-point in Jack's departure from the glory days depicts him and his girlfriend Ellie in a performance reminiscent of a minstrel show. 

Additionally, the blurbs on the back of this play made me think about the tendency toward hyperbole when writing about culturally and literarily significant works. While I did enjoy this play and certainly do think it is important, I wonder if readers today would still draw comparisons between it and Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Both bad pictures courtesy of my phone and UNM's 95 cent Bantam edition of the play, April 1969.

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