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'Ali' Looks Back on Fighter's Rocky Life, Times

November 20, 1998|PHILIP BRANDES

In real life, Muhammad Ali has always been a one-man show, so it's little wonder he proves such an appropriate and compelling subject for Geoffrey C. Ewing's solo portrait in the L.A. return of "Ali" at the Odyssey Theatre.

Engagingly staged by John DiFusco, "Ali" depicts the retired boxer, circa 1989, at his most charming and vulnerable in a direct address to an imaginary inner-city audience. His movements hampered and speech slurred by the onset of Parkinson's disease, the aging Ali still embodies greatness and surprising humility as he looks back on his life as a series of all-important lessons. In flashbacks, the versatile Ewing effortlessly transforms himself into the indomitable firebrand who could "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee" on his way to an unprecedented record of three world heavyweight titles.

More ambitious than a simple career retrospective, the painstakingly researched script by Ewing and Graydon Royce examines the triumphs, controversies and tragedies that made Ali a touchstone for America's turmoils during the '60s and '70s. Civil rights, Vietnam and black identity underscored his fights inside and outside the ring. He challenged the status quo by changing his name, openly declaring himself a Black Muslim, refusing induction into the military and verbally sparring his way into the headlines with his signature impromptu rhymes (predating the rap era). Ali used showmanship, attitude and sheer physical prowess to define a new way of being black in America: smart, unapologetic and confident of his abilities.

Balancing his accomplishments are the regrets: his succession of failed marriages, the sad spectacle of his final comeback attempt and, most of all, his psychological warfare, which he later realized deeply hurt one of his most respected opponents, Joe Frazier.

Despite its sociological probing, the piece rarely tackles Ali's internal life head-on, leaving some questions unanswered (about the process that led to his conversion from Baptist to Nation of Islam, for example). While prey to some of the awkward artifices of the monologue genre, "Ali" still scores a technical knockout with its shifting chronology and occasional alternate voices (also supplied by Ewing, including a hilariously dead-on Howard Cosell). Besides, who could possibly share a stage with "The Greatest"?

*

* "Ali," Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. except Dec. 13 and Jan. 10. Dark Thanksgiving and Dec. 23-29. Ends Jan. 10. $18.50-22.50. (310) 477-2055. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

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