(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/19.)
Marco Ramirez is not the only writer to see the potential in the story of Jack Johnson, the first African-American world heavyweight boxing champion. Like Howard Sackler in The Great White Hope (1967), Ramirez uses the outline of Johnson’s story to explore both the fighter’s pride and the ferocious prejudice he provoked. The big difference is that Sackler’s approach was basically realistic whereas Ramirez offers a stirringly expressionist vision of the boxing world.
Although Ramirez calls his hero Jay Jackson, the character has much in common with Johnson: the same iconic status, heavyweight prowess and determination to lure the white world champ out of retirement to prove his supremacy. But Ramirez is less concerned to write a bio-play than to explore the dilemma faced by a mythic black American hero, especially in the early 20th century. Jackson is made painfully aware, not least by his own sister, that his fame jeopardises his family and unleashes racial hatred. At the same time, Jackson knows that only by pursuing his private dream can he ever hope to change the world.