While we are all unique individuals, it ‘s a fact that a few people are just a little more unique than all the rest. And that description definitely applies to Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight boxing world champion—a man of such enormous size, talent and outrageousness that it virtually beggars description.
In The Great White Hope by Howard Sackler, now at Karamu House, a fictionalized version of Johnson (named Jack Jefferson) serves as the centerpiece of a play dealing with the virulent racism at the turn of the 20th century. But more than that, it traces the arc of a man who is fighting for his individuality against the restricting and conforming pressures of society.
This is a huge, sprawling production (20-some scenes, all in different locations, more than 40 cast members), executed through collaboration among Karamu, Ensemble Theatre, and Weathervane Playhouse. Director Terrence Spivey draws insightful performances from his leading players, but some awkward performances in a number of supporting roles serve to lessen the impact of this ambitious work.
Early on, Jefferson wins the heavyweight belt amid a cacophony of racist slurs offered up by whites in and out of the boxing industry. But, true to the actual person, Jefferson is a man with a huge ego, boundless confidence, and an absolute dedication to living his life as he sees fit. This includes cohabiting with a white woman, Eleanor Bachman, a decision that infuriates many whites and blacks.
As Jefferson, Anthony Elfonzia Nickerson-El exhibits a boxer’s ripped physique and the calm assurance of a man who knows exactly who he is. He and an excellent Ursula Cataan have great chemistry on stage, giving their relationship the depth it needs to keep Sackler’s script grounded. Even though the real Jack Johnson was much more of a “sporting” man than this play lets on, bedding scads of women through his years, Nickerson-El’s Jefferson is compelling and suitably larger than life.
About to be imprisoned on trumped up charges under the Mann Act (transporting females across state lines for amoral purposes), Jefferson sneaks out of the U.S. and begins a journey through many countries in Europe. A few years later, he lands in Cuba for a title defense that will write an end to his short reign as champion. This play is all about that journey, and Sackler wins big on points as he repeatedly hits on the issues of individualism and societal intolerance.
In the role of Jefferson’s trainer Tick, Peter Lawson Jones is solid, as is Colston (Skip) Corris as Cap’n Dan, a man who doesn’t believe a black man should be champ. And Rodney Freeman is eerily indomitable as the U.S. attorney who is Jefferson’s primary pursuer.
But there are moments when some supporting actors—employing too much volume, too many grand arm gestures, too much stogie waving and sucking, and excessively mangled foreign accents—tend to impair the flow of the story.
Also, since this production will be traveling to Weathervane in a few weeks, the set has been kept quite simple. But some of the foreign locales are hard to differentiate since the set cues are often quite spare.
Still, when the principals are on stage, all is well. And the fascinating tale of this singular man rings true and poignant.
The Great White Hope
Through March 14; produced by Karamu House, Ensemble Theatre and Weathervane Playhouse; at Karamu House, 2355 East 89th St.; 216-795-7077