2/19: The Great White Hope opens at Karamu



A century ago, a fight promoter talked undefeated white heavyweight champ Jim Jeffries out of retirement to fight Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight title winner. Karamu revives Howard Sackler’s The Great White Hope — the 1967 play about the hope and fear that surrounded the bout — with Anthony E. Nickerson-El as Johnson (renamed Jack Jefferson here), Peter Lawson Jones as his trainer Tick and Joseph Milan as the “great white hope,” known as Frank Brady in the play. Karamu artistic director Terrence Spivey says the racial tension surrounding Johnson was compounded because of his brash personality and the fact that he “dated a lot of white women.” “Frank Brady just wants to work on his farm and feed his goats,” says Spivey. “He doesn’t want to fight again. But they come out and talk about how this black man dates white women and how he has this big grin. They get him riled up.” Spivey says the large production — which includes more than 40 actors — is a technical challenge with its 1909 costumes, period sets and various locales (Karamu will deal with some of those issues with a multimedia presentation that creates the illusion of travel). Directing Jones is old hat to Spivey; this is the county commissioner’s third Karamu production. “He learns lines fast,” says Spivey. “He’s quite a committed craftsman.” The production — which is a cooperative venture among Karamu, Ensemble Theatre and Weathervane Playhouse — opens at 8 p.m. with performances through March 7 at Karamu (2355 E. 89th St., 216.795.7077). Tickets: $12-$24. — Michael Gill

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