Muhammad Ali will be forever remembered as being a legendary fighter, but a Broadway star too? That's a more commonly forgotten persona of his personality, perhaps. But it's true: Back in 1969, Muhammad Ali was busy as the eponymous lead in Broadway's Buck White . It was the height of the Civil Rights Movement when Buck White burst onto Broadway. A musical with sincere merit and accomplishment, Ali's role as Buck White only cements the status of this show. What made this a perfect, albeit short-lived, storm of musical goodness?
For one thing, Buck White was one of the first Broadway musicals written by a black man. Adapted from Joseph Dolan Tuotti's play Big Time Buck White, Oscar Brown Jr.'s production lasted only five days on Broadway. Five days! Less than a week on Broadway for a musical that sought to present a vision of civil rights activism that was being presented in real life. Five days for Ali to get up on stage and show a different side of himself. What Buck White tackled was incredibly relevant not only to the American culture but resonated with Ali's own push for social justice.
You can see below what remains of Buck White: The cast performing We Came In Chains on The Ed Sullivan Show. Ali makes his way through the crowd and delivers a sermon to a rousing group of black activists. "We came in chains/ We must remember that/ For that and that alone explains exactly where we're at," Ali speak-sings. In real life, Ali is literally and figuratively a towering figure; on the Sullivan stage, he looms larger than ever.
Ali was not known for his singing or acting skills, despite small turns in film, television, and a few documentaries. But here, for this brief moment in time, the reality mirrored the art. At the time when this play took place, 1969, Ali had been suspended from boxing due to his status as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, and he needed to still make a living. While touring and lecturing was part of the plan, this move towards Broadway was a equally prudent move for the boxing heavyweight. You see, Ali's dedication to social justice and racial equality was part of his very fabric. His moves to end ignorance and bigotry colored every move he made outside of the ring. It then goes that we shouldn't be surprised he took on Buck White; rather, we should be surprised he didn't get a chance to play the role for a longer run.
Ali shows to us, with Buck White, that he was indeed a multi-faceted man (not that we needed to be convinced). His role in this musical not only shows the power a celebrity can bring to art, but what happens when art and reality intersect.