The Great White Hope

October 13, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, a fighter returns to the stage. Ray Suarez reports.

ACTOR: There you go. You keep sitting there any way you like, because he sure is happy, okay?

ACTOR: Okay.

RAY SUAREZ: America’s a different country from the one shocked by an onstage interracial kiss with , a fictional black boxer in 1967. America is a different country from the one shocked that same year by the real-life heavyweight champ and his unapologetic black nationalism. Across the decades of change and tumult…

ACTOR: Jack, I swear I’ll help. Just you shouldn’t through it in their face. I’m begging you.

RAY SUAREZ: …An artistic ambassador from those turbulent days returned to the arena stage in Washington. The "Great White Hope" came back to the house where it first laced its gloves on, to help the arena celebrate its 50th birthday. The play’s story is loosely based on the life of Jack Johnson, who became the first black heavyweight boxing champion in 1908.

ACTOR: I’m going to bust that bag wide open, and we’re all going to have a champagne lunch.

RAY SUAREZ: In Howard Sackler’s stage play, later made into a film, Johnson is called Jack Jefferson. He’s forced to leave the United States on a trumped-up morals charge because of an affair with a white woman. Taking his lover with him, he wanders all over Europe looking for work. Frozen out of competition in Europe, a wanted man in America, he eventually ends up in Cuba where he loses his championship in a fixed fight.

ACTOR: Come on! Hook him behind.

RAY SUAREZ: Jack Jefferson is a skillful fighter, proud, a rascal too, and a man willing to thumb his nose at the racial conventions of his day while smiling all the time. That the heavyweight championship is held by a black man is maddening enough to promoters and rivals; that the champ is Jefferson, only makes it worse.

ACTOR: Nobody thought the nigger would lick woods first.

RAY SUAREZ: The play contains numerous racial slurs. It incited such strong feelings when it was first produced that some of its actors received death threats. Audiences threw their programs onto the stage floor. 1960s co-star Jane Alexander, who played James Earl Jones’ lover, received obscene letters, and had to be escorted home from the theatre every night. Arena stage artistic director Molly Smith directed the new production.

MOLLY SMITH: In ’67 it really was a play about race, and it was about race in the most obvious ways. Now, in the year 2000, I think a lot of issues of race have gone underground, and are subterranean. From a very white audience I’m hearing things like, "it makes me feel ashamed of the United States and our relationship in America to people of color." From African American audience I’m often hearing, "Boy, this is a hard play to see, and yet it needs to be told now, that there are racial issues that are happening in our own Washington, D.C., on an ongoing basis, that need to be brought out into the light."

ACTOR: How you feelin’?

RAY SUAREZ: Smith says the audiences are doing battle with the near past– a different time, but a time like our own.

MOLLY SMITH: I think proximity makes it hotter. If there is a play that was written 2000 years ago and it’s brought forward into the present, it’s easier to say, that was then.

RAY SUAREZ: Three years after the arena premier, the "Great White Hope" became a Hollywood movie with the original leads as the stars.

ACTOR: A white girl? You want to drive them crazy?

ACTOR: Look, what was I supposed to do, start in some itty-bitty hole someplace in nigger-town and go streaking up there at 12:00 at night?

RAY SUAREZ: I asked the two actors if they were intimidated following Jane Alexander and James Earl Jones.

KELLY McANDREW, Actress: Yeah.

MAHERSHALA KARIM, Actor: Yeah, definitely. Here it was I sort of was given this gift of watch "Great White Hope." I saw his work in it and I kid you not, I sat there and I cried for about 15 minutes because I continue… I couldn’t believe that this piece of work existed and that I didn’t know about it, that my friends didn’t know about it. And I said, well, I can’t do that, you know. I know I can’t do that. I can do what I can do, but I can’t do that.

KELLY McANDREW: Inevitably there are going to be comparisons, but hopefully people will just what they’re seeing now as opposed to holding them up against each other. But I was very, very nervous, because I mean not only were these remarkable performances that won Tonys and went on to make a film and be nominated for academy awards, these were performances that launched these two people’s careers.

RAY SUAREZ: Mahershala Karim Ali and Kelly McAndrew play the doomed lovers, Jack Jefferson and Ellie Bachman. In their reprise of the Jones and Alexander roles, Ali and McAndrew are much younger actors, not even born when the "Great White Hope" first came to the stage.

MOLLY SMITH: I really wanted to find young actors who were very sophisticated and would be able to handle the breadth of these roles. And it was very important to me that there was a quality of innocence about both of them, because I think that’s what part of the story line is. We see them grow, we see them change, we see them age, we see them harden, we see them toughen, we see them fall apart. And in that way, it is a tragic play of, I think, Olympian stature, particularly for the Jack Jefferson role.

RAY SUAREZ: > Suarez: Is there something you’re trying to provoke in this audience?

MAHERERSHALA KARIM: I can’t say that there’s anything specific that I want them to feel except I think if anything, I want them to see that this is just another man.

ACTOR: She clear?

MAHERERSHALA KARIM: I think that the world became… The world sort of collaborated together to bring him down. And so it’s almost as if it could happen to you, it could happen to her, it could happen to him, it could happen to anyone.

RAY SUAREZ: The "Great White Hope" moved to New York in 1968, the first time a resident theater sent an original production to Broadway. It ran for 500 performances, and won three Tony’s: Best play, best actor, and best actress. When "Great White Hope" was taken to New York and Broadway, Arena Stage received no credit or any remuneration from it.

ACTOR: Quit it, quit it!

ACTRESS: I won’t go, daddy.

RAY SUAREZ: Not even when it went to Hollywood and became an award-winning film. But the move nevertheless signified a very significant change in American theater. Today about 99% of the new plays that go into New York come from the regional resident theaters, so Arena was the pioneer.

MOLLY SMITH: Huge difference, huge difference. Most of the plays that are coming out winning major awards start first now in the resident theater movement. I think it’s because the resident theaters are riskier. They take not just more chances on artists, but they take more chances with their audiences.

ACTOR: On your feet!

MOLLY SMITH: For every high-tech innovation, there needs to be a high-touch experience. And what is that high-touch experience? I think its the live arts, because it is human, because it is about that sweat that you’re seeing in front of you. It’s about a heart-to-heart connection that one can have with any kind of stage work, and I think it’s more difficult to have in the other medias.

ACTOR: Jack what do you think has happened? I’m asking? Why did it, jack?

ACTOR: He beat me, that’s all. I just didn’t have it. ( Applause )

RAY SUAREZ: Suarez: The Arena Stage 50th anniversary season continues through June of next year, including the classic "A Streetcar Named Desire" and several new plays. ( Applause )