Actor goes another round with Ali play

Boxer's lookalike resurrects role he created

September 30, 2007|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,Sun reporter

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."

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