Geoffrey Ewing

Muhammad Ali

Lloyd Goodman

Charles Brown

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At Crossroads, Ali Still Floats Like a Butterfly

This article by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February 3, 1999. All rights reserved.

Just talking about the legendary boxer and African-American

civil rights activist Muhammad Ali is like a breath of fresh air for

actor Charles Brown. Former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali

is the subject of the new play, "Ali," by Geoffrey Ewing and

Graydon Royce. "Ali" opens at Crossroads Theater on Thursday,

February 4, and runs through March 7. This is the New Jersey premiere

of "Ali," directed by Woodie King Jr., founder and producing

director of the New Federal Theater in New York.

"Ali" interweaves celebrated and little-known episodes from

the boxer’s legendary life both in and out of the ring. It begins

with the unlikely rise to international fame as the young Cassius

Clay, to his sensationalized political views and religious transformation

as Muhammad Ali, all laced with his colorful wit and bravado. The

territory includes Ali’s much-publicized run-in with the U.S. Army,

and his prohibition from boxing that was eventually overturned by

the Supreme Court.

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Geoffrey Ewing

Conceived by Ewing, who originally appeared in the title role, "Ali"

has been performed in London, Off-Broadway, and Atlanta during the

1996 Olympic Arts Festival. Ewing is currently on tour with the company

in Los Angeles. This is the first production to feature two actors

in the role of Muhammad Ali. Lloyd Goodman plays the young Ali, already

notorious in the 1960s as Cassius Clay, and Broadway actor Charles

Brown plays Ali in his later years.

In his first appearance in the role, Brown portrays Ali in his retirement

years, eight years after his last fight. These are the years when

Ali went back on the college lecture circuit, and as Brown’s reenactment

of a talk unfolds, the life that Ali remembers comes to life before

the audience. Although the play’s setting predates Ali’s disability,

there are some hints of the onset of the Parkinsons disease that currently

hampers his faculties of speech.

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Muhammad Ali

"I’ve followed Ali since my high school days in Cleveland, Ohio,"

says the enthusiastic Brown in his characteristic resonant baritone,

in an interview from Crossroads. "JFK was in the White House back

then, and we were so sure the civil rights movement would prevail.

But still, he was a breath of fresh air. He was marvelous."

Brown has performed on Broadway in the original cast of August Wilson’s

"Fences," and in "Rumors," "Home," "The

Poison Tree," and "The First Breeze of Summer." His film

credits include "Legal Eagles," "Trading Places,"

and "Without a Trace." He’s been seen on television as a series

regular on "Here and Now" and "Dream Street."

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Lloyd Goodman

Portraying the youthful Ali in all his bluster is Lloyd

Goodman, a young actor who appeared in "Seeking the Genesis"

at the Manhattan Theater Club, and whom Brown has grown to admire.

"I remain on stage and watch him along with the audience. It’s

such a treat. He’s such a tremendous brother. He shows us an Ali we

can all hold in our memory: brash, young, strong, unstoppable —

verbally and physically."

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Charles Brown

Preparing for the role was a refresher course for Brown on a man he

had watched all his life. "Ali is among the most chronicled athletes

of our time," says Brown, "and there’s a wealth of material

about him. I read, I watched him on videotape. I’d seen a lot of the

major fights when they happened, on closed circuit TV — like the

`Thriller in Manila’ against George Foreman."

More surprising was Brown’s encounter — also by way of television

— of the contemporary Ali, in all his infirmity, at the Olympic

Games in Atlanta in 1996. "Ali’s appearance at the Olympics brought

tears to my eyes — I surprised myself," Brown recalls. "I

didn’t anticipate being moved but it really got me. Not out of sympathy.

But there was this feeling that there’s my man, he’s weathering the

storm as best he can."

The acclaim that greeted Ali’s ceremonial appearance only galvanized

the opinion Brown already held that Ali will be remembered as far

more than a former boxing champion (and, one might add, the grandfather

of all rap artists).

"Ali has turned out to be such a magnificent man, he’s larger

than his boxing life," says Brown. "He’s become a fixture

in American legend, a household name. The great body of the American

public has a great affection for Ali, and it’s a love that Geoffrey

captures very well in the script."

Although Ali was never a political leader as such, Brown says his

career was closely associated with issues of racial pride. In fact,

Ali’s pride was such that he was at first "a tad intimidating

to the black community."

"Some people thought his audacity might be a detriment to the

cause of civil rights, because they didn’t know what it would lead

to," says Brown. "So the embrace of him might not have been

immediate, but when it happened it was full. We gradually realized

that this man was fully awake, fully alive in the American sense,

and I still wonder at the man’s internal fortitude."

Ali’s political influence was most strongly felt during

his enforced exile from boxing. "That’s when he started visiting

the college campuses, and by the time the Supreme Court handed down

the decision he could fight again, the audience was hungry for him,"

says Brown.

Some say, however, that when he returned to the ring, Ali fought too

long and too much. Although it is known that he now suffers from Parkinsons

disease, not everyone understands that this is not a Lou Gehrig-type

genetic misfortune, but a direct result of his boxing career.

"There’s a medical term called Pugilistic Parkinsons," Brown

explains, "in that maybe the brain in the healing process develops

some scar tissue. I’m not a medical expert, but I think it’s a sort

of unavoidable conclusion that it was brought on by some of the battering

he absorbed in the ring."

Ali, the impassioned public speaker who regaled his audiences with

metaphorical descriptions ("Float like a butterfly and sting like

a bee") and impromptu poems, seemed the least likely public personality

to become tongue-tied. There’s a line in the script about his illness

where Ali says, "I feel like I should be able to fix it, but I


Brown concludes that the play, selected by Crossroads to celebrate

Black History Month, is a fitting celebration of the inextinguishable

spirit of a hero. "Someone once told me that on the lecture circuit

at Harvard in the ’60s he was asked for a poem and he wrote one right

there — the shortest poem in history. Just two words, but so perfect:

`Me. Whee!’"

— Nicole Plett

Ali, Crossroads Theater, 7 Livingston Avenue, New

Brunswick, 732-249-5560. Opening night. To March 7. $27.50 to $35.

Thursday, February 4, 8 p.m.

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