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Actor goes another round with Ali play

The Baltimore Sun

The black-and-white images flit across a screen above the stage - white cops hosing protesters, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. inspiring a rally, thousands marching on Washington - and fade away, leaving a small stage empty, silent and mostly dark.

There, beside a black Everlast punching bag that hangs from the ceiling, a spotlight falls on a figure you've known your whole life, though not really: the broad, caramel-colored face, the larger-than-life physique in the black suit and tie, the eyebrows climbing the forehead in childlike surprise.

"I have a decision to make," proclaims Muhammad Ali, his voice echoing through the empty theater with the force of a hard right. "Step into a billion dollars and deny my people, or step into poverty by telling the truth. ... Well, damn the heavyweight championship; damn everything! I will die before I sell my people for a white man's money."

Only it's not Ali; it's Bruce Rory Thomas, a Baltimore-based actor and playwright who happens to look so much like the former champ that strangers have asked him for his autograph. Thomas is rehearsing Rumble, Young Man, Rumble, his original one-man play about Ali's life and times, which he's reviving this weekend and next at the Chesapeake Arts Center in Brooklyn Park.

The play gains depth, Thomas says, from the two years in the 1980s when he worked part time as the legend's bodyguard. At rehearsal's end, he removes a brown Nation of Islam cap, walks over with a smile and pumps your hand.

If the likeness is striking, it's only your invitation to a drama about a man who marched into life's ring, often with his guard down, and tapped gloves with the deepest questions of an era. "In or out of the ring," Thomas says, mopping sweat from his brow, "he was always fighting."

The tale, as Thomas remembers it, started simply enough. A karate competitor, he was training in the Washington, D.C., area in 1988 when another martial artist, Rowesha Burruss, bragged that whenever Ali came to the area, he got to act as his bodyguard.

For the next two years, Thomas says, when Ali went to Washington, he and Burruss sat with the legend in limos and guided him through crowds.

Thomas knew well of Ali's public struggles - his 1964 conversion to the Nation of Islam alienated many fans, and his refusal to fight in Vietnam in 1967 cost him his heavyweight title and permission to fight. What did Ali think of this country? "It's still the greatest nation on the face of the Earth," he recalls Ali saying. Thomas is still surprised that of all Ali's experiences - winning titles, meeting more women than he could ever romance, dining with kings and queens - he said he most valued his relationship with God.

Thomas came to see Ali as a turbulent mix of traits - a gentle soul in a violent game, an ordinary man with towering aspirations, a born comedian whose rage could get the better of him.

The dichotomies really hit home in the early 1990s, when Thomas was living in New York and working as a sometime actor. (He was a stand-in for Isaac Hayes on the set of It Could Happen to You, and spars with Jodie Foster during her character's FBI boxing training in Silence of the Lambs.) That was when he saw a star-studded TV special celebrating Ali's 50th birthday.

Ali was already struggling with the effects of Parkinson's disease. After Ella Fitzgerald, Howard Cosell and other stars sang his praises, a young girl read him a poem and asked if he liked it.

"He was trying to say, 'I loved it,' but nothing came out," Thomas says. "He was just - overwhelmed. Even I never imagined Ali ... showing that kind of vulnerability. He's bigger than life, yet there's this human part people can reach out and connect with."

Friends had always recommended that Thomas play the fighter, he says, and now he had a vehicle. "It hit me like lightning," he says. "I wanted to explore that part of the man. I knew I wanted to write the play. It all became so clear."

For the next eight months, he spent several hours a day in the New York Public Library, reading news accounts, clippings and books and watching film footage, soaking in the details that would bring a portrait to life.

Off-Off Broadway

To Thomas, synchronicity seems hard at work. How many people grow up around the same sport as the man they'll eventually portray, let alone resemble him? And check out the career switch - a microbiology major at the University of Maryland, Thomas meant to become a dentist, only to start acting and writing in his 20s. (Today, he's a sales manager for a home health firm.)

In New York, he happened to meet a fellow Baltimorean, theater director Peter Piccinini, on the set of a Nicolas Cage film, and told the Johns Hopkins University grad of the play he was working on. To Piccinini, the project was a gold mine.

"How many plays and books about Ali are there?" he says. "More than you can count. But this one is no Rich Little impersonation. It's hard-hitting; it's difficult. You've never seen an Ali like this."

He directed Thomas in the play at an Off-Off Broadway theater in 1993, in a one-week run, and is directing the revival at Chesapeake Arts Center as well.

As Piccinini helped Thomas tighten the scenes, designed sound and lighting schemes to illuminate the fighter's psyche and more, what emerged were 37 living snapshots of the champ. Dressed in a dark suit or boxing trunks, Thomas addresses the audience, acting out real events while sharing his thinking.

Audiences saw, as they're seeing in Baltimore, Ali's most turbulent period: from 1960, his early career, through 1967, when his war stance cost him his title and his right to work. In that span, he toppled a fearsome champ (Sonny Liston), cashiered his "slave name," Cassius Clay, and gained self-affirmation among figures of controversy (Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad).

"In the person of this legend, [the play] brings a period of history to life," says David Jones, executive director of CAC, a nonprofit outfit housed in a former Brooklyn Park high school. It offers arts classes in addition to stage productions throughout the year.

Jones met Thomas one night last year when the actor, now a Brooklyn Park resident, stopped by CAC to pick up his daughter, Dara, who was enrolled in a singing class. He ended up reading the Rumble script, which he said was "educational" on both Ali the man and notions of success. Jones is especially glad the actor will perform at least one show this week for groups of schoolchildren in addition to the other performances at CAC.

If the principals have their way, Rumble will edify grown-ups as well. To Thomas and Piccinini, Ali's heroism falls well within the American tradition of heroes challenging and changing a flawed status quo.

"Pro athletes and celebrities model tennis shoes and T-shirts today, but they don't tend to want to be role models," says Thomas, who aspires to take the show to other cities, including Ali's hometown of Louisville, Ky. "But there was a time when a man gave up everything he had to do what he believed was right. That's the kind of man I think he was."

'You wanna rumble?'

The late rehearsal is taxing. Thomas hasn't done the play in 14 years. The speeches on family and fighting, on Islam and Ali's quest to be treated like a man leave him sweating a little. "It's a physical production," he says.

At about 9, a knock at the door signals the arrival of dinner for the crew. In comes a delivery boy, pizzas stacked on one hand. He's startled to see a familiar figure in a black suit, mugging, holding up his fists and bouncing on his feet.

"You wanna rumble?" Thomas cries. The boy bolts.

"You're a cruel man," Piccinini says. No, protests Thomas; he's just upset he must pass on the pizza. He has been working out like a boxer for weeks, running, dieting and hitting the heavy bag.

"I'm just in training, that's all," he says, jabbing the air with his fists. He looks ready for 15 rounds.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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