After suffering through the incoherent gibberish that passed for dialog in the Rocky movies, I never would’ve thought boxing as a good subject for drama. The late Howard Sackler proved otherwise. Perhaps, that’s because The Great White Hope isn’t really about boxing. In this masterpiece of the stage the playwright explored one man’s battles against society, racism and fundamentally, himself. A transcendent work resulted.
Based on a true story, the play told the tale of Jack Jefferson, an African-American prizefighter during the early twentieth century. The character flaunted the era’s cultural taboos with abandon. He defeated a white boxer, nicknamed “The White Hope”, for the title. He abandoned his common-law wife. He had a white girlfriend. His unorthodox behavior led authorities to frame him for a dubious crime. Mr. Jefferson’s exploits made for a most engaging read.
I liked the drama’s pace. Most award winning plays focus on the characters’ relationships. The Great White Hope contained much of that, but Mr. Sackler managed to work in a lot of action. Even during a press conference the playwright fit in multiple occurrences. After Mr. Jefferson’s controversial expressions to the media, his estranged wife, Clara, burst in and interrupted. During a party members of the temperance movement interfered. It seemed fitting that all this activity and conflict would appear in a show about boxing.
Mr. Sackler crafted genuine dialog. He did a nice job of adding some sports “trash talk” to the narrative.
Press One: You starting to get jumpy?
Jack: Yeah. I scared Brady gonna change his mind…
Smitty: So you think you can take him, Jack?
Jack: Well, I ain’t sayin’ I can take him straight off—an anyway, dat be kina mean, you know, all them people, big holiday fight—how they gonna feel I send ‘em home early? (Page 21)
Then Jack used a decidedly “modern” insult against his opponent.
Press Two: What about that yellow streak Brady talks about?
Jack: (Turns u. and flips up his robe.) Yeah, you wanna see it? (Page 21) Jack spoke in a dialect. It corresponded with a man in his profession. It may assist some to read the dialog out loud. Sounding the words will make them more understandable than just reading the text.
A certain racial epithet appeared numerous times in the play. Because of the time period and the characters speaking, it fit the story. I would caution sensitive readers that it may offend them.
While I appreciated the author’s language usage in these cases, I found other places it could’ve improved. Part of the story occurred in Europe. Because of that in several scenes characters spoke in foreign languages. I understood the effect the playwright wanted, but would’ve preferred to follow the conversations instead.
The one aspect I thought Mr. Sackler could’ve improved concerned the fight scenes themselves. In the one at the end of the story, several people looking in from outside narrated the action. To be fair to the writer, it’s difficult to stage a multi-round fight during the course of a show. The method he chose did successfully move the story forward without dragging it.
Mr. Sackler also included some deft symbolism. The main fight occurred on the Fourth of July. While the playwright based the protagonist on the real-life boxer Jack Johnson, Jack Jefferson shared the surname of a beloved Founding Father. These traits showed that the boxing match held much more significance than a normal sporting contest.
I’m glad I went the distance and finished reading this play. After all, it was a knockout with the critics when it first appeared in 1969. It won both the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Its message still hits home today. For that, readers and audiences are the real champions.