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Theater Review:

"ALI," Congo Square Theatre Company at Chicago Dramatists

BY LUCIA MAURO

The impressive Congo Square Theatre Company opens its second season with the Chicago premiere of Geoffrey C. Ewing and Graydon Royce’s "Ali" at Chicago Dramatists. Beyond the commercial value of coinciding this two-man play about the famous wise-cracking heavyweight champion with the release of the film, "Ali," starring Will Smith, the play works on a deeply human level at a time when heroes seem to be in short supply.

By splitting the provocative pugilist into his pre-Muslim Cassius Marcellus Clay and post-Nation of Islam Muhammad Ali personas, the co-writers are able to extend the polarities to youthful idealism and elder wisdom; a fighter who advocates pacifism during the Vietnam era; and how Ali’s fights poured from the ring into his larger battles against racism. But, while the messages coming out of this play are fortifying and uplifting, the playwrights’ choice to restrict the characters to one actor playing the young Ali and another actor portraying the older boxer leaves too many uncomfortable gaps in need of filling.

This limiting framework ultimately grows monotonous and falls short in establishing Ali’s crucial relationships with his trainers Bodini (who first taught him about fancy footwork with his practice incentive to "dance, champ") and Angelo Dundee; Nation of Islam founder Elijah Mohammad; the women in his life; and his faux-nemesis, sports announcer Howard Cosell.

Co-directors Derrick Sanders and Ron OJ Parson wisely "populate" the stage with black-and-white projections of many of these figures around a blood-red set anchored by a boxing ring, locker and enlarged cover of TIME Magazine. But, in general, the material is so vast and relationship-driven to be restricted to two actors alternating the delivery of Ali’s stories – hence, the history-class-style telling rather than showing nature of the play.

Audiences, however, will be astonished by Parson’s striking physical similarity to the older and more reflective Ali, as well as Javon Johnson’s fleet-footed and motor-mouth mastery as the cocky and boastful younger Ali. Both actors also reveal the many sides of this complex athlete, who boldly moved from the sports pages to the front pages as a key leader of the Civil Rights movement and as an internationally respected humanitarian.

Once they get past the plodding structure of the script, audiences will come away with a greater understanding of a man who claimed, "I’m not only the greatest; I’m the double greatest!" So much of his "thespian braggadocio" resulted from the injustices of racism. After he won the gold medal in boxing at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, the then-Cassius Clay couldn’t even enjoy the luxury of treating his friends to hamburgers at a diner in his native Louisville, Kentucky. It’s also made clear how the Nation of Islam – with its emphasis on ridding oneself of one’s "slave name" – appealed to him. And his refusal to fight in Vietnam is more extensively explored.

A key overriding theme is how America can be very selective about its freedoms.

So besides the play’s more familiar accounts of the 1964 Miami fight, where Ali became the world heavyweight champion after defeating Sonny Liston – together with the 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" in Zaire with Joe Frazier and the 1975 "Thrilla in Manila" with George Foreman – we catch glimpses of Ali the man, his more personal struggles and global triumphs.

It’s also admirable that the writers do not sensationalize the Champ’s ongoing battle with Parkinson’s disease. Nevertheless, the play cries out for an even more encompassing and layered perspective of this legendary fighter and humanitarian.

Congo Square Theatre Company’s production of "Ali" runs through December 15 at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave. Tickets: $20. Call 773-913-5808 or log onto www.congosquaretheatre.org.

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