David Roberson gives a marvelous portrayal of the life and times of Muhammad Ali in a production marred only by sections of flat, repetitive writing.
The play opens as an older Ali, having just returned in triumph from Iraq with 15 American hostages freed by Saddam Hussein in the wake of the Gulf War, talks about his life to an assembled audience. After a humorous introduction to the wry, winning wit of the champion, which includes exchanges with the audience, Ali narrates his career, personal struggles and successes in the form of flashbacks.
Beginning as the Olympic gold medalist Cassius Marcellus Clay from Kentucky, Ali tells the story of his outsized life, as he faces challenges that range from racial, political and religious discrimination to the punches of Floyd Patterson, Joe Frazier and George Foreman.
Ali chronicles his conversion to Islam by Elijah Muhammad, his admiration for Malcolm X, and his loss of the heavyweight title because of his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War. He also recounts his title fights with Patterson, Frazier, Foreman and Spinks, recalling not only his triumphs, but the pain and suffering of a fighter’s career.
There are many amusing incidents in this piece, including Ali’s jocular, high-profile jousts with sportscaster Howard Cossell, as well as Ali’s encounters with the high and mighty in the world of sports, politics and entertainment.
While this is a somewhat idealized version of the champion, it does convey a credible portrait of one of the more memorable personalities of the late 20th century.
What emerges from the dazzle and braggadocio of the early Ali is the picture of a magnificently gifted, dedicated athlete who transcended the world of sport to become an international political and, finally, spiritual figure. Although the event is not depicted in this production, the emotional appearance of Ali at the Olympic Games in Atlanta was the final recognition of Ali’s contribution not only to sport, but to the global community.
The play does succeed in portraying Ali as a very human icon, capable of self-deprecating humor even as he brags outrageously of his accomplishments and role in the world. Underneath the bragging, however, there was always at least a large grain of truth. “If I was Christian, I’d be a hero,” proclaims Ali as he is persecuted for his religious beliefs during the Vietnam era. Thirty years later, few would argue with his proclamation.
Actor Roberson is uncanny in his ability to bring Ali, both young and old, to life. Clearly, he has studied Ali extensively and re-creates with intricate detail Ali’s mannerisms and moods. It is especially eerie to watch Roberson in the ring as Ali. When he turns his back, you almost expect the real Ali of 30 years ago to spin around with his trademark smirk.
The primary shortcoming of the production is the script, which belabors some of the events of Ali’s life that are already common knowledge. In addition, it is a highly flattering portrait of the champ, with little attention to any of his personal shortcomings. Still, it is a moving tribute to a cultural icon.