Cassius Clay won his Olympic gold medal in 1960 as a whip-thin light-heavyweight three months out of high school. The bravura, the quips, the manipulation of opponents and the media – in short, everything that went into the persona he created as he morphed into Muhammad Ali – were far off.
Yet the seeds had been planted in Louisville, Ky. Boxing became his refuge from racial segregation in a South where Emmett Till could be lynched for whistling at a white woman. (Clay was 15 when that Mississippi killing took place.) Surrounded by Jim Crow, the man who would become the most famous boxer in history slipped away to get a gym glow.
That’s the teenager we meet in “And in This Corner: Cassius Clay.” Over the years, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte has produced plays for Black History Month with African-American characters at their centers. But Idris Goodwin’s coming-of-age drama reminds us Clay’s story isn’t black history: It’s our history. All of us, whatever our color, have been shaped in some way by the forces that shaped him.
The play takes just an hour to carry us over six years, from his first days in training to his triumph at the Olympics and return to Louisville, where he learned he still couldn’t eat at a segregated restaurant. (Goodwin includes the incident where Clay then threw his medal into the Ohio River, acknowledging this may be a myth.)
Events couldn’t flow so swiftly without Goodwin’s skilled condensation of time; we learn about Clay and the world around him in vignettes. Nor would this production work without fluid direction by Aaron Cabell; his actors move swiftly and constantly around the stage, like boxers looking for a chance to land another punch and keep us off-balance.
The show, unusually so for a Civil Rights drama, has no villains. A bullying black kid befriends Clay after a lesson in the ring, and boxing champ Sugar Ray Robinson snubs his fan when Clay meets him. But except for an anonymous cook who ejects Clay from a restaurant, the villain remains America itself, a country where such behavior seemed reasonable to many citizens.
Instead, Goodwin gives us glimpses of unsung heroes: Clay’s stalwart mother and patient father (Ericka Ross and Traven Harrington), the white cop who takes Clay into a gym and teaches him the ropes (Kevin Shimko) and especially Eddie Green, a politicized pal who nudges the ambivalent Clay into developing a social conscience (Rahsheem Shabazz).
Goodwin reminds us that Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. and his father were named for a Kentucky abolitionist who freed slaves he inherited and paid them wages. Neither he nor Cabell want us to find whites odious, except as a collective group who didn’t acknowledge racism.
Of course, the play relies on the charisma of its title character, and Deon Releford-Lee plays Clay with endless enthusiasm and a touch of humor. Lee narrates the play in poetic couplets, foreshadowing the older Clay’s penchant for rhymes, and we see the embryonic world-conqueror in this brashly appealing teen.
P.S. The n-word turns up once in a dialogue between Green and Clay, spoken so quickly and quietly I’d have missed it if I hadn’t known it was coming. Elementary schoolers at the performance I saw didn’t seem to take it in.
‘And in This Corner: Cassius Clay’
When: Through Feb. 18 at 7:30 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. (No show Feb. 16.) Also a sensory-friendly performance Feb. 17 at 11 a.m. The 3 p.m. performance on Feb. 17 is ASL sign-interpreted.
Where: ImaginOn, 300 E. Seventh St.
Running time: 60 minutes without intermission.