It’s a play, recommended for ages 8 and older, that re-creates key moments in the formative years of a young man who burst forth from Jim Crow-era Louisville, Ky., to become an Olympic gold medalist, a revered heavyweight boxing champion, and a vocal advocate for civil rights and other causes.
But not everyone thinks “And in This Corner: Cassius Clay,” which is being staged beginning Friday by Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, is a good example for schoolchildren.
To explain: In general, Children’s Theatre typically hosts several performances of its regular-season productions for student groups from area schools; in the case of “And in This Corner,” there are 19 shows on the schedule between this Wednesday and Feb. 16 at McColl Family Theatre at ImaginOn. However, Children’s Theatre managing director Linda Reynolds said “four or five” classes that were signed up decided to cancel their tickets after learning that the show about the man who would become Muhammad Ali included the n-word.
It’s uttered just once, by lead actor Deon Releford-Lee (who plays Cassius), but that apparently was enough.
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Reynolds and Children’s Theatre artistic director Adam Burke said there was never any talk of censoring the word.
“It’s in the script,” Burke said. “We either choose to do the script with it, or we don’t do the play.”
“None of us like to take that journey back through that era,” Reynolds said, “but this is the reality of what was happening then, and for us to gloss over it or eliminate it would not be staying true to the era, to the history of what was happening during that time in our country.” (Reynolds added that most of the communication with the schools in question “was very heart-felt, with schools/teachers considering what they felt was best and appropriate for their students and the grades that were to attend.”)
On a surface level, the premise of playwright Idris Goodwin’s story is fairly simple: It starts with 12-year-old Cassius being inspired to take up boxing after his bike is stolen – “I see that no-good thief, I’ll be the best fighter you’ve ever seen,” he tells Joe Martin, the police officer who becomes his first coach – then follows his early successes in the ring, culminating with him winning a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.
Of course, since this is all set against the backdrop of segregated Louisville at a time when the civil rights movement is coming to a head – and because Cassius’ best friend keeps encouraging him to challenge the restrictions posed on African-Americans throughout the play – there are deeper questions and issues to be explored.
And tougher language. (In the play, Cassius uses the n-word later in the play while recalling for that friend a time when people hurled the epithet at him inside a “white-only” diner.)
This actually isn’t new territory for Children’s Theatre. In March of 2015, the company presented “Jackie & Me,” a play about a kid who used a baseball card to travel back to 1947 – the year that Jackie Robinson broke the color line in professional baseball when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers.
At one point, the boy reads aloud an anonymous threatening letter to Robinson that contains the n-word. Reynolds and Burke of Children’s Theatre said no classes logged complaints or backed out of commitments for “Jackie & Me.”
With both that play and “And in This Corner,” Children’s Theatre put a prominently displayed note about the use of the language on its website, calling the word “painful to hear” and “difficult to talk about.” The note for the current production closes by stating: “We want the stage to give a voice to important issues and events and not minimize the racist treatment of black Americans. You may want to discuss this word and its context in the play with your children before seeing the performance.” It also provides a link to an interview with Arizona State University professor Neal A. Lester, who has twice taught courses on the n-word.
When contacted by the Observer, Lester said he was pleased to see the theater being proactive about the discussion, but was outraged to learn that schools were backing out of opportunities for their students to see the show.
“I mean, all of these young people have been exposed to some aspects of what’s going on in the world – whether it’s conversations about immigration, conversations about taking a knee,” said Lester, a foundation professor of English and director of Project Humanities at Arizona State. “These are things that we can’t shield children from, if they’re existing in a place where there’s television, there’s radio, there are other kids.
“So make this a conversation about language, make it a conversation about race relations, make it a conversation about treating people with kindness.”
‘And in This Corner: Cassius Clay’
When: This weekend’s showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. There are also performances Feb. 9-11 and Feb. 17-18.
Where: McColl Family Theatre at ImaginOn, 300 E. 7th St.
Details: 704-973-2828; www.ctcharlotte.org.