December 2nd, 1969.
It is 948 days since Muhammad Ali refused induction into the United States armed forces. 948 days without a fight, a paycheck, or the respect of his country.
Now, instead of lacing up his boxing gloves he is donning a wig, false beard and robes to debut a new off Broadway musical. ‘Buck White’ was adapted from a successful play called “Big Time Buck White” by Joseph Tuoti that had toured in Los Angeles and Philadelphia. It had been adapted into a musical by director Merl Saunders and composer and lyricist Oscar Brown, both of whom had Ali in mind for the titular role.
The plot is radical. Ali plays the role of a black liberator, a leader of men. A messianic figure who frees his comrades by leading a group called B.A.D. (Beautiful Alleluia Days). His character galvanises them with fiery speeches and songs including “(It’s All Over Now) Mighty Whitey.” It was this message that ultimately convinced the Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammad to allow Ali to take the part.
Despite this, as he walked onto the boards of the George Abbott Theater in New York both the facade outside and the play bill listed him as ‘Cassius Clay’, the ‘slave name’ he’d denounced in 1964.
Ali receives praise for his work in the musical. “I was amazed at his ability to carry a tune — his voice was as attention-grabbing as his charm as a fighter,” said producer Zef Buffman “The preview was the most astonishing theatrical event I ever lived through, Ali was brilliant. Forget Harry Belafonte,”.
The New York Times review of the show also bore the headline “Champion Does Himself Proud in Musical,” The author Clive Barnes, who’s review is generally negative described Ali thus “He emerges as a modest, naturally appealing man; he sings with a pleasant slightly impersonal voice, acts without embarrassment and moves with innate dignity. You are aware that he is not a professional performer only when he is not performing”.
The show generally though started to get panned. One reviewer stated “The musicalization drowned what had been a powerful play in a frothy sea of well-meaning clichés”.
It did though appear on the world famous ‘Ed Sullivan Show’ to publicize its opening, footage of which is still on YouTube. The show was picketed and subjected to hate mail by white people who considered Ali a draft dodger and black people who called him a sellout. Ron Rich, who performed on the show, contends the F.B.I. got involved. “Ed Sullivan came to my dressing room and said I think J. Edgar Hoover put pressure to shut the show down.”
Whether it was as complex as an FBI conspiracy or as simple as bad ticket sales, Four days after opening night “Buck White” closed forever. Only weeks later, in the spring of 1970, the George Abbot theater was demolished.
At its essence this story is one of tragedy, of the weight of a nation forcing its biggest sports star into a sub par off Broadway musical. Billed by a name he’d long since renounced and forced to perform well away from the boxing rings he thrived in, all to collect the paycheck the United States government had denied him.
Although through his humour and talent he would force this to become a footnote in his great career, it is symptomatic of the wider situation, and the desire to suppress civil rights figures. With Martin Luther King and Malcom X murdered and Huey Newton in jail, the authorities must have seen “Buck White” as them financially abusing the last great black American voice into selling out.
This was Ali’s lowest professional moment, but it spurred the comeback. On the June 28, 1971 the United States Supreme Court ruled on ‘Clay v. United States’ and freed Ali from his purgatory.
Ewan for SimBoxx