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Great White Hope on the Great White Way


The American theater rarely presents a sports personality as the central figure of a serious drama, but it has now done so with "The Great White Hope" by Howard Sackler, which opened on Broadway this week. Starring James Earl Jones and with a cast of 60, the play closely follows the lurid career of Jack Johnson, the first Negro acknowledged as heavyweight champion of the world (he defeated Jim Jeffries on the Fourth of July 1910). For five years, until April 5, 1915 when he lost to Jess Willard in Havana, Johnson was hounded by promoters, sportswriters and fight fans thirsting for a White Hope. He easily defeated all their candidates, and many still believe he agreed to take a dive at Havana, in return for having a Mann Act conviction quashed. In depicting Johnson's good-humored defiance of the mores of his time, the play also reveals the corruption that permeated the boxing world then, as it often has since. If the play succeeds on Broadway, it may stimulate an exploration of sports themes for contemporary drama.

At the weigh-in before their championship fight. Johnson is snubbed by Jeffries. During training he relaxes with his white mistress, whose presence exacerbated the antagonism toward him.