The Great White Hope

by Howard Sackler

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Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 569

Jack Jefferson

Jack Jefferson, a black heavyweight boxing champion. A complex personality, Jack plays many roles in American society in the years preceding World War I. After defeating the white champion, he becomes the object of the establishment’s attempts to dethrone him by finding a Great White Hope. Jack is powerful, aware, and moody; he knows what is expected of him outside the ring, but he plays the role of the big, black buck, slow of speech and intelligence and lusting after white women, with obvious irony. He also has a self-destructive bent because he lives openly with his white lover, Ellie Bachman, despite the outrage and vindictiveness of both white and black forces. After being arrested for violation of the Mann Act, Jack escapes to Europe rather than face his sentence. During his exile, Jack deteriorates as a fighter and as a man, unable to establish a stable personality among the many roles he is forced to play: embittered exile, victim of racism, and self-deprecating actor-fighter. He expresses his increasing bitterness toward the persecuted Ellie, who is driven to suicide. In his remorse, Jack accepts the offer from Cap’n Dan to throw the fight against the Kid, the new Great White Hope, in exchange for amnesty. Overall, Jack remains an enigma, defined more by the swirling forces around him than by himself.

Ellie Bachman

Ellie Bachman, the young white woman who becomes Jack’s lover and suffers the consequences of living with a black champion in a racist society. Ellie refuses to give up her relationship with Jack, saying that she loves him for his character rather than for the notoriety surrounding him. She proves her love by staying with him throughout his exile, but when she sees how totally Jack is consumed by his struggle against hostile social forces, she advises him to accept the fixed fight with the Kid. Jack belittles her for this advice, causing her to commit suicide. She leads a tragic life in pursuit of a doomed relationship with a complex, tortured man.

Cap’n Dan

Cap’n Dan, a former heavyweight champion who is determined to restore the heavyweight crown to a white man. He convinces the former champion Brady to come out of retirement to fight Jack, but after Brady is easily defeated, Cap’n Dan joins with newsman Smitty, Chicago District Attorney Cameron, federal agent Dixon, and promoter Pop Weaver to have Jack arrested and later to force him to throw the fight with the Kid.


Smitty, a famous sportswriter who is outraged by Jack’s success as heavyweight champion and his relationship with Ellie. He is a calculating wordsmith, asking probing questions and writing inflammatory articles in an effort to discredit Jack.


Goldie, Jack’s white manager, who is devoted to promoting Jack’s career. Goldie sets the fight with Brady for July 4, knowing that Jack’s victory will bring him fame and money. Goldie also warns Jack not to flaunt his relationship with Ellie and to recognize the power of the hatred the white establishment has for him. Jack ignores Goldie’s advice, and during his exile he becomes estranged from his manager, who finally counsels Jack to accept the offer of amnesty in exchange for losing to the Kid.


Tick, Jack’s loyal trainer, who is with him throughout his career as a daily functionary but has no influence over the fighter.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2000

Eleanor Bachman Eleanor (Ellie) is Jack’s white girlfriend and love interest. After meeting Jack on a boat returning from Australia, she follows Jack to San Francisco rather than returning to her...

(This entire section contains 2000 words.)

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home in Tacoma, Washington. She is good-natured and supportive but not a bit naïve about interracial relations. Ellie is aware of the challenges Jack faces as a black man and is fiercely protective of him. Volunteering to be interviewed by Cameron, Ellie tells him her reasons for participating, saying, ‘‘I wanted to head off any notions you have of getting at him through me.’’

Contrary to the opinions of those opposing her relationship with Jack, Ellie truly loves him and has no desire other than to be with him. She suffers the scrutiny and judgment of others, only to face disbelief and disrespect rather than support and acceptance. At one point during her interview with Cameron, she is driven to tears, pleading, ‘‘why can’t they leave us alone, what’s the difference?’’

Mrs. Bachman Mrs. Bachman’s objective is to get her daughter out of arm’s reach of Jack. Although she appears infrequently during the course of the play, she surfaces to deliver an important dramatic monologue. Her speech is revealing—it helps the audience to understand her motivations concerning Ellie as well as those of other characters in the play. Her fear, her ingrained loathing for what she calls blackness, is described by association, ‘‘the black hole and the black pit, what’s burned or stained or cursed or hideous, poison and spite and the waste from your body and the horrors crawling up into your mind.’’

Brady Brady is the former Heavyweight Champion of the World and a possible contender chosen to win the title back from Jack.

Cameron The district attorney for Chicago, Cameron is behind the efforts of Cap’n Dan and others, but for professional reasons rather than personal ones. He indicates this in a conversation about Jack, stating, ‘‘You know . . . if a good White Hope showed up and beat him it would take the edge off this.’’ It would certainly take the edge off Cameron, who recognizes that revoking the fighter’s privileges or charging him with a dozen misdemeanors would not help because ‘‘they want [Jack’s] head on a plate.’’

Clara Clara is a former lover of Jack’s who has surfaced in his life to rekindle their relationship. Although she claims to be his common-law wife and that Jack is dishonoring her, Jack has a different story to tell. Clara does not deny Jack’s accusations— that she left him for a pimp named Willie or that she sold off his clothes, ring, and silver brushes. She is determined to win Jack back, which can be witnessed in her saying, ‘‘you ain’t closing up the book so easy, Daddy.’’

Clara cannot be silenced. The mistrust and jealousy she harbors for Ellie has become a personal crusade against her. To Clara, Jack is at Ellie’s disposal. Ellie maintains Jack in her life simply for the purpose of her own amusement. Clara’s anger towards Ellie is really a vehicle for social commentary. Ellie is, as Clara sees it, the force behind her oppression, merely on the basis of her color. Clara believes Ellie to be a catalyst for Jack’s arrest and Mrs. Jefferson’s death.

Cap’n Dan He is described simply as a champion of earlier days. Cap’n Dan is the main force behind the group of white fighters, sportswriters, and promoters who would like to see Jack lose his title. He expends a great deal of energy and effort to make his dream a reality. For Cap’n Dan, Jack’s victory is a threat not only to his social status and his reputation as a fighter but also to his white lifestyle. He sees Jack, and black citizens in general, as inferior. Jack’s status as champion is more than a victory; it is an affront, an attack on his core belief system. Says Cap’n Dan:

I hold up his hand, and suddenly a nigger is Champion of the world. Now you’ll say, Oh, that’s only your title in sports—no, it’s more. Admit it. And more than if one got to be world’s best engineer, or smartest politician, or number one opera singer, or world’s biggest genius at making things from peanuts.

Jack’s victory has a profound effect on Cap’n Dan precisely because he feels a sense not only of superiority but of entitlement as a white individual. The idea that a black man attained the same success and status as Cap’n Dan is a threat to him. He has, in a sense, failed to live up to the white standard he has imposed on himself and to a belief system that says he is better than any black male, regardless of talent or ability.

Dixon Offering his expertise as a federal agent, Dixon provides professional support in assisting the district attorney of Chicago in his apprehension of Jack. He suggests the use of the Mann Act, which leads to Jack’s successful arrest.

Dixon also has a personal interest in seeing Jack brought to justice after he flees the country. In a meeting with Cap’n Dan and others, he states ‘‘When a man beats us out like this, we—the law, that is— suffer in prestige, and that’s pretty serious.’’ And like Cap’n Dan, Dixon believes that he cannot ‘‘allow the image of this man’’ to impress and excite ‘‘millions of ignorant Negroes, rapidly massing together.’’

Ellie See Eleanor Bachman

Goldie He serves as Jack’s manager as well as his friend. Goldie is aware of the challenges Jack faces as a black fighter and is very supportive and protective of Jack. When negotiating the terms for Jack’s fight with a promoter, Goldie is quick to point out the inequity of the situation, saying, ‘‘my Jackie would fight for a nickel, tomorrow. But it wouldn’t look nice for you to take advantage, so you’ll offer me low as you can get away with and I’ll say OK.’’

Goldie is also a father figure to Jack. When he finds out that Jack is seeing a white woman, he says in dismay, ‘‘Last night in my head it’s like a voice— Dumbbell, go home quick, somethin’s goin on with him!’’ This statement is followed by a stern lecture not only about the dangers of being a black man dating a white woman but also about those inherent in just being a black heavyweight champion. The audience comes to see Goldie not only as a manager but as a family member and friend when he chooses to support Jack in his flight from justice and then participates in Mrs. Jefferson’s funeral on Jack’s behalf.

Jack Jefferson Jack is more than a heavyweight fighter; he is a top-notch athlete, fiercely devoted to his sport. Jack is also unwilling to succumb to the demands society places upon him, both as a black man and as a black athlete. Despite Goldie’s repeated warnings that dating a white woman would hurt his career, Jack insists on announcing his engagement to Ellie publicly, at the grand opening of a café in Chicago.

His fighting ability is also challenged strictly on the basis of his color. Cap’n Dan and others insist Jack defend his title on their terms, hoping he will eventually lose. Jack, however, does not feel an obligation to Cap’n Dan, nor does he give in to the harassment and enormous pressure put on him by white society. Jack refutes any pressure or suggestion from the group, stating, ‘‘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!’’

This defiance is characteristic of Jack’s behavior throughout the work. He repeatedly insists on maintaining personal autonomy and self-respect among whites and blacks alike, even if it means risking incarceration or his own life. Jack will go to any extreme to preserve his identity, becoming a fugitive on the move for almost the entire play.

Mrs. Jefferson Jack’s ailing mother is a troubled, God-fearing woman who deeply loves her son, despite his shortcomings. She also feels a sense of responsibility for what is happening to her son, pleading, ‘‘Lawd fogive me not beatin on him young enough or hurtin him bad enough to learn him after, cause ah seen this day comin.’’ Mrs. Jefferson does not blame Ellie for Jack’s troubles, nor does she question Ellie’s affections for her son. When Clara attacks Ellie, Mrs. Jefferson defends her, replying, ‘‘could be she do love him, Clara.’’ More important, her death serves to heighten racial tensions among the black characters of the play who blame Jack’s arrest for her death.

Pastor The audience is introduced to the activities of the pastor as he interacts with Mrs. Jefferson. He is a mediator attempting to soothe tense, racially charged moments with church rhetoric. He provides opportunities for social commentary from Scipio, Clara, and others. When the pastor tries to calm the angry crowd during Mrs. Jefferson’s funeral, Scipio responds sarcastically, ‘‘Dass right, chillun, suffer nice an easy—school em on it, boss!’’ Scipio’s comments eventually insight a riot. For Scipio and others, the church represents another part of white culture that has been imposed on blacks to subdue them.

Ragosy Ragosy is the Hungarian impresario who encourages Jack to give up any ideas he may have of fighting in Germany to join his Cabaret. The engagement is short-lived, however, when Jack and Ellie’s performance ends abruptly after a disastrous reception.

Scipio A street philosopher, Scipio appears during several moments in the course of the play to illuminate or explain the nature of the white institutionalization he and others of his race have been subjected to. His perspectives amplify the sentiments of those African Americans who are no longer content to ‘‘just get along,’’ to be passive as well as complacent in the context of a society controlled by whites.

Smitty The famous sportswriter seems always to be lurking in the shadows of Jack’s life. At the opening of the play, he is a witness to the fight between Jack and Clara and is one of the first people to learn of Jack and Ellie’s relationship. He is also behind the scenes, privy to the efforts of Cap’n Dan and others to dethrone Jack as World Heavyweight Champion.

At every turn in the play, Smitty is present, asking questions of Ellie, Jack, Cap’n Dan, and others. His probing interviews also function to give the audience a different perspective into the motivations of many of the characters. At a railway station in Belgrade, Smitty attempts to advise Jack, urging him to surrender and return to the United States to defend his title. He tells Jack that he’d ‘‘rather have [the fight] straight,’’ if he ‘‘weren’t so good.’’ This comment betrays Smitty’s true feelings, and as the play wears on, the audience discovers that Smitty is not just an ambitious journalist, but an informant for Cap’n Dan.

Tick Loyal to Jack as his trainer, Tick never really leaves his side throughout the play. He is a silent man. More than a trainer, he is a steady, trustworthy, and supportive companion to Jack.

Pop Weaver The promoter from New York behind the Havana fight, Pop Weaver works with allies Cap’n Dan and Fred to plan Jack’s defeat by introducing some young raw white talent. When he learns the fight will be fixed, he is quick to offer up his objections. Eventually, he agrees to go along with the plans stating, ‘‘We’ll balance it out on the one after this. Everything back on the gold standard, right?’’




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