“Ghost in the House” is a return to roots for Ernie Hudson. Perhaps best known for his role as Winston in the popular Ghostbusters films, Hudson’s original calling was the theatre, specifically playwriting. Hudson will give his premiere performance as Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion, Feb 2 in the Adams State University Theatre. Hudson co-wrote the show with director Frank Megna.
Two performances will be held: a matinee at 2pm and an evening performance at 7:30pm. The matinee will be followed with a “Talk-Back” discussion session with Hudson and Megna. Evening audience members may meet Hudson at an informal reception following the performance.
Ticket prices are $5 for AS&F members, $10 for the general public. Tickets may be reserved by calling the ASU Theatre Box Office at (719) 587-8499. The show is recommended for teens and adults, as some language is not suitable for younger children. Adams State’s presentation is in association with Opening Minds Productions.
“This is a great opportunity for me to tell this story, and to do what I love to do. It gives me a chance to put my heart into a project. It’s been a challenge and a lot of work,” Hudson said. “Jack Johnson was extraordinary. His is a great American story, and one not heard before.”
In 1908, Jack Johnson defeated Tommy Burns to become the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion. During a time of deep racial unrest, whites then called for a “Great White Hope” – a white boxer who could beat Johnson. Former champion Jim Jeffries came out of retirement to attempt that, but lost. Riots erupted across the country, injuring hundreds and resulting in the death of 23 blacks and two whites. Police interrupted several attempted lynchings.
Inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954, Jackson is considered by many to be one of the best heavyweight fighters of all time. Jackson also inspired Muhammad Ali, whose corner man would often urge him on with shouts of: “Ghost in the house! Ghost in the house! Jack Johnson’s here! Ghost in the house!”
Thirty-five years ago, Hudson starred as the character modeled on Johnson in the play, “The Great White Hope.” “It really changed my life. I came into my own as an actor,” said Hudson, who always drew inspiration from the multi-talented boxer. Johnson traveled the world, appeared in films and opera, raced cars, and was a musician and author. He also inflamed white society by marrying three different white women, which in those days was illegal in many states.
“His story gave me permission to believe in myself. If he could do all that in 1910, in the environment he had to operate in, then anything was possible. I didn’t have to accept the limitations others put on me… Possibilities opened up,” Hudson said.
Acknowledging the social progress he’s seen during his lifetime, Hudson noted, “We are still struggling with issues we haven’t resolved, as we saw during the recent presidential election. It helps to know where we’ve come from, so that we don’t assume things have always been that way. This isn’t crying ‘victim’; we just need to be aware of how things were.”
In addition to the fabled boxer, Hudson was strongly influenced by his grandmother, who raised him following his mother’s death when he was three months old. “She had a very spiritual perspective. She said there is a season for all things, and not to panic when things seem like they’re not going right. She told me to pray and listen.”
Hudson said the Ku Klux Klan enjoyed a strong base in Michigan while he was growing up in the small town of Benton Harbor. Black students at his high school were tracked into the “practical” program – never the “academic” program. “We were not allowed to take algebra. I never had eighth grade English, because our teacher left us alone in the room.” Some professions, such as police and firefighting, were absolutely closed to blacks. Years later, as one of only a few black graduate students at Yale, Hudson said he was stopped by police at least once a week. “I had this Detroit persona and looked very menacing. I never fit there. . . but nothing is lost. I learned from everything.”
With such poor high school preparation, Hudson struggled simply to be admitted to college, where he achieved a 4.0. But in 1967 at Wayne State University, he discovered theatre. “The first time I walked on stage, I was home. I thought, ‘I can do this.’” His first theatre professor, David Regal, who praised his talent, encouraged him. “All you need is one professor who believes in you. Wayne State was my basis for everything.
“When you commit to something, it commits to you. From that point on, all my jobs were associated with the theatre,” Hudson said, despite his grandmother’s dream of a “good job, one where you wear a tie.” Already married with two children, Hudson had worked at Michigan Bell Telephone, but “hated it.” He was encouraged to dream bigger by his first wife, whom he married when she was in ninth grade. “I will always thank her for that,” he said, noting she went on to earn a Ph.D.
Another crucial experience for Hudson was becoming the resident playwright at Detroit’s Concept East, the oldest black theatre in the country. “That made all the difference…Even as a little kid, I loved telling stories. We’re all story tellers,” Hudson said. “I loved that aspect of writing: you can control the world.”
Once when his grandmother was hospitalized toward the end of her life, doctors and nurses gathered in her room to watch one of Hudson’s recent films on TV. His grandmother wasn’t impressed by fans seeking his autograph, saying, “That’s real nice, baby, but when you gonna get a job?”
Hudson has gone on to appear in many films and television shows, and is now awaiting release of ten new productions. Ironically, his success in the Ghostbusters films was followed by dry spells when he was offered no acting work.
“I came to Hollywood to become rich and famous. I didn’t realize you could be poor and popular,” he joked. That drought was broken by Hudson’s role as the mentally disabled handyman in “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.” Among his subsequent films are “The Crow,” “Congo,” and “Miss Congeniality.” At times he appeared in a different TV show each week. In recent years, he appeared in Modern Family, Law & Order, HBO’s Oz, and The Secret Life of the American Teenager.
“Most work out here [in Hollywood] isn’t challenging. I spent 40 years waiting for someone to discover what I can really do, but I have to do it myself,” Hudson said. “I’m really excited to come to Adams State to premiere ‘Ghost in the House.’”