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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.
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.
"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."
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."
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,"
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:
— Nicole Plett
Brunswick, 732-249-5560. Opening night. To March 7. $27.50 to $35.
Thursday, February 4, 8 p.m.
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