In the second act of Howard Sackler's "The Great White Hope," a black prize fighter called Jack Jefferson is reduced to performing "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in a Budapest cabaret. In the sprawling production at Washington's Arena Stage, the cabaret is run by a ringmaster, and Jefferson stands on a round platform decorated like a pedestal for a circus elephant.
This motif is central to director Molly Smith's interpretation of Sackler's 1969 Pulitzer Prize-winning play about the evils of racism. The boxing ring is synonymous with the circus ring, from the ropes and ladders to the men in black calling the shots.
Finding a theme to unify the rambling drama was a wise idea. But this one is fairly simplistic, and in the end, it further accentuates the playwright's overly broad approach.
Loosely based on the life of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight world champion, "The Great White Hope" is a play whose historic significance extends beyond its once-daring subject matter. Three decades ago, it became the first major production to transfer from a regional theater to Broadway, making stars of not only its leads - James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander - but of Arena Stage itself.
With 19 scenes that stretch from the United States to Europe, Mexico and Cuba at the start of the 20th century; more than 200 roles; and themes that range from race and politics to romance, the play is Shakespearean in scope, but it lacks Shakespeare's focus and intensity. And a unifying motif and some strong acting are not enough to turn Sackler's expansive epic into a masterpiece.
Still, given the play's history and challenges, it was gutsy for Smith to choose it to open Arena Stage's 50th anniversary season. Her production features a smaller cast and a tighter script (she is using the Broadway version, which trimmed a half hour off the original 3 1/2 -hour running time). But the director has been less effective in sustaining dramatic tension.
Again, much of the problem lies in the script. Except for Jefferson (newcomer Mahershala Karim Ali) and his white mistress, Ellie (Kelly C. McAndrew), most of the other characters are thinly drawn, if not mere caricatures. There's the patently racist white fight promoter (Terrence Currier) and his like-minded cronies, the federal agent (David Fendig) covertly trying to subdue a man the government sees as a threat, and Jack's stereotypically jealous former girlfriend (Aakhu TuahNera Freeman). And they're well-rounded compared to the stick figures Jack meets in Europe - a pack of drunken German soldiers, for example. Even the character of an African (Clayton LeBouef) preaching a return to African values and identity comes across as little more than a spokesman for an ideology.
The production's most compelling element is the relationship between Jefferson and Ellie (Sackler combined Johnson's three white wives into a single fictitious character). The interaction between two people - not political factions - is what makes the play moving, and Smith and her lead actors make the most of this human component. From the affection in McAndrew's eyes in their first scene together to the anguish in Ali's cries at the end, the bond between them is convincing and palpable.
But too often Ali's words get lost in Sackler's dialect and the vast reaches of this in-the-round theater. It's a difficulty that also besets several other cast members, making the action seem even more diffuse.
At such times, the circus that Smith has built her production around threatens to overwhelm any inherent drama. The result is a production that may honor the history of this play and especially this theater, but it is not destined to make history again.
'The Great White Hope'
Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., S.W., Washington
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; matinees 2:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. selected Sundays and noon selected Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Through Oct. 15