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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
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
served to confirm my feelings.
A major change is that the work is now performed by two actors,
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
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
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
and jabbering isn’t a feat to inspire our awe. It is.
Although this reverential portrait may not be the sweat-drenched
and political drama it aspires to, for those unfamiliar with the
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
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
"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,
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
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
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
Ali’s political views are given more time and space. Goodman is
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
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
history does pay respectful homage to a superman who would bring
validity to the "Black is Beautiful" movement.
— Simon Saltzman
Brunswick, 732-249-5560. $27.50 to $35. Continues to March 7.
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