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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
Muhammad Ali: A Tribute to the Greatest
As a theatre-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.
We still have the pleasure of Ewing's impressive investment in personifying Ali which , includes smattering of the action in the ring, as well as the fast talk that sparked the original. However, there is little that qualifies it as an improvement to the padded and punchier staging at Crossroads in 1999 in which Lloyd Goodman and Charles Brown played the younger and older Ali. There is nothing that I can see in this version that makes it clear why Ewing, after fourteen years, found it necessary to author and star in his own solo version of the Ali legend or, for that matter, not to simply 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. His slightly slurred speech is just beginning to reveal the onset of Parkinson's. He kibitzes with the audience as he makes his way slowly down the aisle's steps to the stage upon which is 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's short opening commentary segues to the decidedly scholarly dissertation on Ali's life as given by lecturer Ewing. He 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, his 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. Although somewhat repetitive, demonstrating Ali as an engaging, generous, sympathetic, intelligent and heroic man doesn't appear to be too much weight for one episodic chronicle to bear.
With no director given credit, Ewing isn't 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 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 and his gift for rap and repartee. 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. However, "the fastest talker on two feet" never lets the avalanche of words trip him up in the ring, whether he's 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. 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. 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 embrace of the Baha"i faith.
We see Ali, intoxicated by his new-found religion, either the cause or at the center of controversy. 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.
Although this new-ish 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. 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 on the screen 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.
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