Ali, Congo Square Theatre Company, at Chicago Dramatists. To win his three World Boxing Association titles, Muhammad Ali beat Sonny Liston to a pulp, pummeled George Foreman into submission, and outclassed Smokin' Joe Frazier in a 15-round nail-biter. Outside the ring he loomed just as large as an antiwar crusader and civil rights activist. And playwrights Geoffrey C. Ewing and Graydon Royce have done an admirable job of capturing the high points of the prizefighter's career in this exhaustive but lumbering script, which could use some of Ali's fleet footwork and vicious jabs.
Part of the problem is that Ewing and Royce don't give Ali consistent sparring partners: he interacts with imaginary characters, addresses the audience directly, and even channels Howard Cosell. Directors Ron O.J. Parson and Derrick Sanders have divided their subject into a younger Ali (Javon Johnson, who nails the boxer's cockiness) and an elder Ali (warmly played by Parson himself). The imaginative set design--a giant Time cover is the backdrop for an open boxing ring--helps underscore Ali's burdens as champion of the ring and champion of the people. But ultimately Ewing and Royce's insistence on portraying the fighter as superhuman throws the play off course. What made Ali great wasn't the illusion of invincibility but the understanding that beneath all his bravado he was mortal like the rest of us.