There is no doubt that the Crossroads Theater Company’s presentation of “Muhammad Ali: A Tribute to the Greatest” is an appropriate theatrical supplement in observance of Black History Month. Originally presented as a solo piece under the title “Ali,” it was first produced Off Broadway in 1992 with Geoffrey Ewing as Ali.
Ewing, who also co-authored the play with Graydon Royce, has evidently gone back to the original and used excerpts to create a cross between a partly informative lecture and a partly animated narrative.
As a theater piece, it suffers from Ewing in his role as scholar reading his notes from behind a lectern; as a lecture, it suffers from not offering fresh insights or a unique perspective to his legendary subject; and as a tribute-driven play, it simply suffers.
While we still have the pleasure of Ewing’s impressive investment in personifying Ali, including a smattering of the action in the ring and the fast talk that sparked the original, there is little that qualifies it as an improvement to the padded and punchier staging at Crossroads in 1999.
There is nothing that I can see in this version that makes it clear why Ewing, after 14 years, found it necessary to author and star in his own solo version — or, for that matter, not just bring back the well regarded original.
This version opens with an aging, slowed down Ali, apparently in retirement on a lecture tour eight years after his last fight. With slurred speech beginning to reveal the onset of Parkinson’s, he kibitzes with the audience as he makes his way to the stage, set with a lectern, a stool, a large screen, and an illuminated square on the stage floor. The latter is used for the fighting scenes.
Ably personified by Ewing, Ali gives a short opening commentary that segues to the decidedly scholarly dissertation on Ali’s life as given by lecturer Ewing. However, Ewing makes the transitions from himself to Ali with more ease than the text does in transiting the highlights of Ali’s life and career.
If nothing else, Ewing’s portrayal offers some testimony to Ali as “the meanest” and “the prettiest” of men. Ewing could also be called a pretty sight in his boxing attire, his toned and chiseled body as admirable as is his acting.
With no director given credit, Ewing is not terribly concerned that his lecturing gets a bit tedious, despite the movement-filled digressions into the ring. There is also the inherent problem of watching a series of fights with only the motor-mouthed Ali visible. This is not to imply that witnessing Ewing’s fancy footwork and his perpetual jabbing and jabbering isn’t a feat to inspire our awe.
When the young Ali — then known as 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.”
Ewing has unquestionably captured much of Ali’s humor and hubris as well as his gift for rap and repartee. But it all too quickly begins to sound like neurotic ranting and raving, especially as it seems to pervade every moment of the play. However, “the fastest talker on two feet” never lets the avalanche of words trip him up in the ring, whether he is out-boxing Liston for his first championship, or badmouthing 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. Yet one of the play’s most compelling scenes occurs 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, and the play does not neglect the turbulent late 1960s, when Ali was labeled a black racist. The stirring transformation from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, the new fearsomely outspoken spokesman for the nation of Islam, is given a lot of time and interestingly contrasted against Ewing’s personal embrace of the Baha’i faith.
As was true of the previous versions, this play’s attempt to define Ali as the symbol of the modern black man is flawed by its lack of personal and psychological inquiry. Ali’s personal life and loves (including four marriages) are simply tossed aside. Ali’s political views are given more time and space, including the devastating consequences of being stripped of his boxing title when he refused to be inducted into the military on the grounds of being a conscientious objector.
Though this newish one-man version stalls with a lack of dramatic inquiry, it is, nevertheless, packed with facts and figures. The story of how Ali was instrumental in the release of 15 hostages in Iraq is one outstanding feat I was happy to learn about. Yet, except for a flashed photo of the author’s young son taken with Ali, there is, unfortunately, a woeful lack of evocative projections on the screen. Simply projecting the title of the play does not constitute creative imagery or design.
Whether or not the record is set straight, hitting the highlights of any well known figure can never qualify as a complete story. But this well intentioned gesture does pay respectful, if not an especially exciting, homage to a superman who would bring unequivocal validity to the “Black is Beautiful” movement.
Muhammad Ali: A Tribute to the Greatest, Crossroads Theater Company, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Through Saturday February 16, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m. $50. 732-545-8100 or www.crossroadstheatrecompany.org.