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Review: `Ali’ at Crossroads

This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

February 17, 1999. All rights reserved.

There is no doubt that "Ali," at New Brunswick’s

Crossroads Theater, will go uncontested as the area’s main theatrical

event in observance of Black History Month. "Ali" was first

performed Off-Broadway in 1992 as a solo performance piece by Geoffrey

Ewing, who also co-authored the play with Graydon Royce. It was, as

my memory serves me, a "socko" (with deference to Variety

magazine lingo) event. What impressed me then was the furious action,

the fast talk, and above all Ewing’s knockout solo performance.

In its new, two-act version now playing at Crossroads, what was

formerly

a compact one-act story of the three-time heavyweight champion of

the world appears to have lost its one-two Sunday punch. This expanded

version may be packed with more facts and faces (courtesy of some

fine projected images of famed fighters and others), but the result

is more enervating than energizing. A surprisingly placid reception

from the usually responsive Crossroads audience on the night I

attended

served to confirm my feelings.

A major change is that the work is now performed by two actors,

Charles

Brown as Muhammad Ali in his later years, and Lloyd Goodman as the

younger Ali. Both actors are excellent and offer vivid testimony to

"Ali" as "the baddest," "the meanest," and

"the prettiest" of men. Perhaps this — as well as

presenting

Ali as an engaging, generous, sympathetic, intelligent, and heroic

man — is too much weight for one episodic chronicle to bear.

Director Woodie King Jr. keeps the scene charged with physical

activity;

yet for all the actors’ expert execution, Ali’s activities quickly

grow repetitious. There is the inherent problem of watching a series

of fights with only the motor-mouthed Ali visible. This is not to

imply that witnessing Goodman’s fancy footwork and his perpetual

jabbing

and jabbering isn’t a feat to inspire our awe. It is.

Although this reverential portrait may not be the sweat-drenched

social

and political drama it aspires to, for those unfamiliar with the

boxer’s

life and career, it offers, at its best, a terse overview of this

once controversial icon. As observed from his youth to his later years

slowed by Parkinsons syndrome, the always witty Ali is determined

to make his self-ascribed virtues as "the Greatest," "the

most powerful," and unquestionably "The Champ," the main

event. Seen in the light and the shadow of David Remnick’s recent

popular book on Ali, "King of the World" (there are 16 such

books in print), "Ali" the play is, at the very least, a

contender

for admiration.

When the young Cassius Clay hurled a number of choice expletives at

the sportswriters who had predicted a loss for him in his historic

fight with Sonny Liston on February 26, 1964, it was to become the

first in a long line of quotable zingers and provocative statements

from the African-American who was destined to become, in his own

words,

"champion of the whole world."

Much of Ali’s humor and hubris, his gift for rap and repartee, is

preserved and duly presented in round after round of "Ali."

But it all too quickly begins to sound like so much neurotic ranting

and raving, especially as it seems to pervade and propel virtually

every moment of the play.

The play begins poignantly with Ali in retirement, eight years after

his last fight. "I can’t shake it up like the old days," says

the considerably slowed-down boxer whose slightly slurred speech is

just beginning to reveal the onset of Parkinsons. One cannot helped

but be moved by Brown’s deliberate heartfelt confession, "I’m

getting wiser instead of getting worser," even as he sets the

stage for his unabashedly abrasive younger self.

As that younger self, "the fastest talker on two

feet," Goodman never lets the avalanche of words trip him up in

the ring, whether he’s out-boxing Liston for his first championship,

or bad-mouthing Floyd Patterson. Ali has plenty to say about the famed

"fight of the century" with Joe Frazier, the "rumble in

the jungle" with George Foreman, and other fights. Goodman,

however,

has some of his best moments, and gives the play its best moments,

when he is out of the ring. Still a teenager and proudly wearing the

gold medal he has just won at the Olympics, the young Clay is

devastated

when he is denied service at a restaurant.

Just around the corner, it appears, is the beginning of his religious

transformation. The play does not neglect the turbulent late 1960s,

when Ali was labeled a black racist. You would have to be made of

stone not to be stirred by Goodman’s transformation from Cassius Clay

to Muhammad Ali, the new fearsomely outspoken spokesman for the nation

of Islam.

We see Ali, intoxicated by his newfound religion, either the cause

or at the center of controversy. The play’s attempt to define Ali

as the symbol of the modern black man is partially flawed by its lack

of personal and psychological inquiry. Here his personal life and

loves (including four marriages) are tossed on the ropes as casual

asides.

Ali’s political views are given more time and space. Goodman is

effective

and touching in the scenes that reveal the devastating consequences

to Ali as he is stripped of his boxing title when he refused, on the

grounds of being a conscientious objector, to be inducted into the

military.

Whether or not the record is set straight, the record is certainly

made clear enough. Hitting the highlights of any well-known figure

can never qualify as a complete story, but this well-intentioned

dramatic

history does pay respectful homage to a superman who would bring

unequivocal

validity to the "Black is Beautiful" movement.

— Simon Saltzman

Ali, Crossroads Theater, 7 Livingston Avenue, New

Brunswick, 732-249-5560. $27.50 to $35. Continues to March 7.


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