The Great White Hope

by Howard Sackler

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Act 1, Scene 1
The play opens on Brady’s farm in Parchmont, Ohio. There is a discussion between Brady, identi- fied as ‘‘the heavyweight champion’’; Fred, his manager; Cap’n Dan, ‘‘a champion of earlier days’’; Smitty, ‘‘a famous sportswriter’’; and several members of the press including photographers. Goldie, Jack Jefferson’s manager, is also present. The group, with the exception of Goldie, is encouraging Brady to re-enter the ring in reaction to the recent performance of black athlete Jack Jefferson, who is a serious boxing contender. Cap’n Dan pitches to Brady, ‘‘You’re the White Hope, Mr. Brady!’’ He shares his fears with the heavyweight, asking how he can let the whole country down, how he can live with a reputation that ‘‘he wouldn’t stick a fist out to teach a loudmouth nigger, stayed home and let him be Champion of the World.’’

The scene ends with a flurry of negotiations after Brady agrees to fight Jefferson. The terms are 80–20 in favor of the promoter, the location is Reno, as suggested by Cap’n Dan, who believes it is necessary to avoid big towns and the likelihood of having ‘‘every nigger and his brother jamming in there.’’ Goldie departs for the train, leaving Brady to pose for photos with members of the press.

Act 1, Scene 2
The action shifts to a small gym in San Francisco, California, where Jefferson is shadowboxing in the presence of his trainer, Tick, as Eleanor Bachman watches. Jack and Tick are working on a strategy for the upcoming fight when Goldie arrives.

Jack relays to Goldie that he met Eleanor on a boat from Australia and that Eleanor is from Tacoma, Washington. When Goldie asks Eleanor to leave because the press is coming, Jack says, ‘‘she stay where she is.’’ Goldie knows he can protect Jack from some adversaries, ‘‘guys who want to put dope in your food there, a guy who wants to watch the fight behind a rifle.’’ He is not prepared to deal with the racist backlash of those unsympathetic to Jack’s involvement with a woman outside his race.

Act 1, Scene 3
Outside the arena in Reno, the day before the fight, Jack calls out to his ‘‘homefolks’’ and moves to their group in the back of the room. When a member of this group of black men tells him they are rooting for him because they believe that his victory will instill in them a sense of pride, Jack responds, ‘‘Well, country boy, if you ain’t there already, all the boxin’ and nigger-prayin in the world ain’t gonna get you there.’’

In a personal moment, Cap’n Dan shares with the audience his fears about a possible victory for Jack. He confides that, unlike being the world’s best engineer or the world’s biggest genius, to Cap’n Dan, the possibility of Jack becoming the heavyweight champion makes the world seem ‘‘darker, and different, like it’s shrinking, it’s all huddled down somehow.’’

Act 1, Scene 4
Jack is hosting the Grand Opening of the Café de Champion in Chicago and has decided to use the event to openly announce his engagement to Ellie. He is suddenly confronted by the Women’s League for Temperance, whose members are protesting the opening. Jack’s reaction to the crowd is to offer them chairs and refreshments outside of the café, an act that serves to disperse the crowd. The conflict is diminished by the arrival of Mrs. Bachman, Ellie’s mother, who has come with an attorney to entice Ellie to leave the festivities.

Act 1, Scene 5
Cameron, district attorney for the city of Chicago, is meeting with several...

(This entire section contains 1983 words.)

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civic leaders and Smitty, a detective, among others, to discuss the incident outside the café, during which Clara, Jack’s common-law wife, fired a shot at her ‘‘husband.’’ As a group, they determine that Jack ‘‘personifies all that should be suppressed by law’’ and agree to work towards such lawful ‘‘suppression.’’ Smitty and Cameron then proceed to interview Ellie, hoping she will say something to incriminate Jack. She repeatedly declares her love for the prizefighter. When their harassment causes Ellie’s hostile departure, Cameron admits defeat, exclaiming ‘‘Nothing! Seduction, enticement, coercion, abduction, not one good berry on the bush!’’

Act 1, Scene 6
Jack is arrested after he is discovered vacationing with Ellie in a cabin in Beau Rivage, Wisconsin. Federal marshals burst into the cabin with lanterns to discover the two romantically snuggled up in bed. Jack’s crime is that he drove Ellie over the Wisconsin state line and ‘‘proceeded to have relations with her,’’ apparently ‘‘illegal under the Mann Act.’’

Act 1, Scene 7
After his arrest, Jack visits his mother while he’s out on bond. His punishment is a $20,000 fine and three years in Joliet prison. Jack tells Mrs. Jefferson that he plans to disguise himself as one of the Detroit Blue Jays, members of a Negro League who assist him in his escape out of the country. He answers his mother’s objections, saying, ‘‘Ah got my turn to be Champeen of the world an Ah takin my turn! Ah stayin whut Ah am, wherever Ah has to do it! The world ain’t curled up into no forty-eight states here!’’

Act 2, Scene 1
The scene is London in the home office of several city officials. Jack’s status as an alien is being questioned after an arrest for ‘‘using obscene language’’ and another for ‘‘causing a crowd to collect,’’ among other offenses substantiated by Inspector Wainright and several other individuals present. At the completion of the meeting, Sir William, the individual overseeing the meeting, trivializes the charges. Despite Sir William’s position, Jack chooses to abandon the proceedings in disgust.

Act 2, Scenes 2–3
Jack’s arrival in France is celebrated, and the action quickly moves to Vel d’Hiver arena in Paris. His competition is, according to Jack, a ‘‘fifth-rate’’ fighter in contrast to his past experiences. Smitty appears next to Ellie as she watches the fight. The sportswriter engages Ellie with a series of probing questions about her life plans with Jack. Noticing Ellie’s increasing agitation, Smitty remarks, ‘‘Living like this . . . has to burn you out . . . you’re not as tough as he is, you know, you can’t just go on.’’ Jack’s bloodstained appearance and shouts of ‘‘assassin’’ from angry spectators suddenly interrupt their conversation. The scene ends with Jack, Tick, and Ellie’s hasty departure from the arena.

Act 2, Scene 4
Fred, Pop Weaver, a promoter, and Cap’n Dan are previewing film footage of what they believe to be the next ‘‘Great White Hope.’’ They hope to strike a deal with Jack. Their plans are to drop Jack’s prison sentence if he agrees to fix the fight. At first, there is some resistance from Pop and Fred; both object to the illegal activity. To Cap’n Dan, Jack’s freedom is a small price to pay for a ‘‘white’’ victory, something that eventually all can agree on. The success of blacks in American society, that is, Jack, is threatening to men like Mr. Dixon, who enters into the discussion claiming, ‘‘we cannot allow the image of this man to go on impressing and exciting these people [blacks].’’

Act 2, Scene 5
In his search for work, Jack is unsuccessful in Germany. According to Ragosy, Jack ‘‘will not divert’’ or get any attention unless he fights. Goldie offers up information concerning a possible fight in Chicago, stating that ‘‘Fred’s got this kid’’ who wants to fight Jack. The profits involve ‘‘10 G’s guaranteed’’ and a reduced prison sentence of six months for Jack. When Jack objects, Goldie, seeing the futility of the situation, tells Jack he will be returning to the States.

Act 2, Scene 6
The scene shifts to Cabaret Ragosy in Budapest. It appears that Ragosy finally has convinced Jack, Ellie, and Tick to act in a dramatic performance based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin. They must stop the show after the crowd becomes more hostile, booing them off the stage.

Act 2, Scene 7
In the train station in Belgrade, Jack, Ellie, and Tick meet up with Smitty, who relays to them that Jack’s mother is ill. He then offers Jack the chance to fight in the States, which Jack immediately refuses. When Smitty responds, asking, ‘‘What is it,’’ is it that he wants to ‘‘stay the champ and keep the belt a bit longer,’’ Jack replies, ‘‘Champ don mean piss-all ta me man. Ah bin it, all dat champ jive been beat clear outta me.’’

Act 3, Scene 1
The scene is a funeral procession on a street in Chicago, given for Jack’s mother. Tensions in the crowd heighten as Clara soulfully speaks of the dead woman’s tribulations. When Goldie expresses his sympathy, Clara responds, ‘‘you an dat white b——an de whole pack a ya—come on ovah to de box here, sugah, see how good y’all nail de lid down.’’ Her statements provoke the crowd’s anger towards Goldie, and there is great confusion as violence erupts and fists and billy clubs fly.

Act 3, Scene 2
Back in Pop’s office in New York, Pop, Smitty, and Cap’n Dan are heatedly discussing Jack Jefferson. The group speculates on how best they can defame Jack, and they come up with an idea to manipulate his future, to bribe his trainers to abandon him, and to bribe officials so there are no exhibition matches or competitions open to Jack. The goal is to entice Jack to return to the States to fight their most promising young fighter, their ‘‘Great White Hope.’’ Says Cap’n Dan, ‘‘we’re gonna squeeze that dinge so . . . hard soon a fix is gonna look like a hayride to him!’’

Act 3, Scene 3
Jack has switched training locations to a disused barn in Juarez, Mexico. ‘‘Well, you kin work wid da heavy ones, time bein. Bettah fo ya, anyhow,’’ replies Tick, when Jack says he’s going to sell his boxing gloves for cash. Everyone involved in Jack’s training must catch the train, leaving Ellie and Jack alone to talk.

‘‘Jack, it’s slow poison here, there’s nothing else to wait for, just more of it, you’ve had enough— please, you’re being paralyzed,’’ pleads a discouraged Ellie. Jack responds that it is Ellie who is dragging him down and that, for him, refusing to give in is a matter of self-respect. Angrily responding to a lack of support, Jack asks Ellie to ‘‘get out.’’

Ellie begs him to reconsider only to be met with a hurl of insults. He blames Ellie for his failure, stating, ‘‘evvy time you pushes up dat pinch-up face in fronna me, Ah sees where it done got me.’’ Ellie exits, and Jack finds himself in the company of Goldie, El Jefe, Dixon, and another government agent. The agent answers Jack’s protests, stating, ‘‘it is perfectly legal’’ to ‘‘request cooperation of the parties in charge’’ in Mexico in an effort to apprehend him. At that moment, Jack learns of Ellie’s suicide, her body presented to him ‘‘mudsmeared and dripping.’’ When Goldie asks Jack how he can help, Jack cries, ‘‘Set dat . . . fight up!’’

Act 3, Scene 4
Jack’s black supporters spiritedly rally around him in the streets somewhere in the United States.

Act 3, Scene 5
The final scene of the play takes place at Oriente race track, Havana. Jack has been sparring in the ring with a young white fighter for ten rounds. To the wonderment of Pop and Smitty, Jack refuses to go down, even after Smitty says he has ‘‘given the high sign two rounds ago.’’ Ultimately, Jack is defeated in the final round. When he is repeatedly asked why he has lost the fight, Jack replies, ‘‘Ah ain’t got dem reallies from de Year One . . . An if you got’m, step right down and say em,’’ resigning to a state of racial inferiority.

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