And In This Corner: Cassius Clay – Theatre Review: Childsplay & The Black Theatre Troupe, Phoenix

There’s a defining moment in our lives. When it occurs you may not recognize it; the moment is often seemingly insignificant. But when it does happen, it changes the path of fate. It’s only much later when you look back and hindsight becomes 20/20 that you suddenly see it for what it was and can say, that’s the moment that ultimately lead me to what I am today, good or bad. For twelve-year-old Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., from Louisville, Kentucky, it was when someone stole his prized red Schwinn bike.

In the new play And In This Corner: Cassius Clay by playwright Idris Goodwin, Childsplay Theatre and The Black Theatre Troupe have teamed together in order to explore a drama that tells the story of a teenage Muhammad Ali, a man raised in a racially segregated Louisville who went on to become one of the most celebrated sports figures of all time. He was ‘The Greatest.’

Though any age is welcome, the play, best appreciated by children 8 and older, is that rare kind of production that can be enjoyed by adults whether they’re with a child or not. Its audience is intentionally all inclusive. Up until the day he sadly passed away at the age of 74 in 2016, Scottsdale, Arizona, Mohammad Ali remained a constant source of fascination. But while we think we knew him, Goodwin’s play fills in the gaps of those early years, the period that hasn’t necessarily drawn as much attention, yet is equal in its importance as much as those more famous later ones. What happened to the boy during those growing years who, just like his father, was named in honor of the white 19th-century politician and abolitionist, defined who he became.

With an accomplished cast of nine performers often playing several roles, the play runs approximately 60 minutes with no intermission. Goodwin’s script is a swift and streamlined account of those years with a style reminiscent of a child’s shortened classroom edition of a classic novel, say Treasure Island, edited for the 4th grade yet retaining all the important highlights that keep the essence of the lengthier original novel intact. “No matter how big they were,” a narrator informs, “They began small.”

There’s the moment when the boy Cassius (Rapheal Hamilton) discovers he could not drink out of the same water fountain as the white boys. There’s the moment when the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old who was lynched after being accused of offending a white woman, is announced while Cassius is training in the gym. There’s the moment at the diner when Cassius and his friend Eddie (Shawn Hansen) are refused service by the manager (Sten Eikrem) who declares, “We don’t serve Negroes,” then proceeds to pour milk and orange juice over their heads. “You boys need to eat elsewhere.” It’s startling and shameful what ordinary citizens will do to others when an unjust law gives them permission to do it without fear of retribution while the subject of their action is helpless and unable to respond. Then there’s the moment when the 12-year-old’s red bike disappears.

Furious to discover his prized Christmas gift was stolen on the streets, Cassius runs to a policeman, reports the crime and angrily declares that if he found whoever committed the crime, he would ‘whup’ him. At first, there’s that uncomfortable feeling that the white cop might act in a way detrimental to the black child just because he can, but the cop turns out to be Officer Joe Martin (Louis Farber) who not only runs a boxing gym but produces a local TV show for boxers called Tomorrow’s Champions. “You come by the gym,” Officer Martin tells the boy. “I’ll show you how to really fight.”

From there, the play closely follows Cassius’ path to greatness, highlighting both his development as a boxer and his self-development as a socially minded activist as he witnesses and experiences life outside of a racially segregated culture. In a letter he writes to his mother from New York, he explains that when looking for directions, it’s okay to go up to white folks and ask. They’ll even answer. And when asked how he was treated by Europeans while traveling overseas, he replies, just like any other athlete.

The play concludes around the time Cassius, now a world fighter, realizes that his fight is not only in the ring but on behalf of those who can’t fight for themselves. In truth, the conclusion feels abrupt and ends all too quickly, but that could be a testament to the play’s story-telling strength and the desire to continually want to know what happened next.

Narrated by individual members of the cast and by the boy Cassius himself – his moments of storytelling are done in rhyming couplets: “During that time/black and white couldn’t intertwine” – while scene changes on Brunella Provvidente’s excellent scenic design are indicated by the ding of a ringside bell, and Neil McFadden’s haunting recordings of voices from the past all contribute to a smart and swift telling of the boxer’s story. Michael Jerome Johnson’s fights are efficiently choreographed, while Cody Soper’s lighting effectively separates individual moments of action.

There’s not a weak link in the nine-person ensemble as they swiftly change costumes and characters, though standouts include Cynnita Agent, hugely effective as Odessa, Cassius’ mother, Louis Farber as the sympathetic though stern Joe Martin, and Raphael Hamilton who, when caught in the right light with Alexis Chaney’s appropriate costume designs, can actually resemble a young Cassius Clay.

As for those defining moments, the play can also inspire some personal self-reflection that makes an interesting conversation for families on the drive home. Mine? Excuse the indulgence. It was my first trip to the theatre in the early sixties: Sammy Davis Jr. in a variety show at The London Palladium. Sammy was mesmerizing, but it was the whole theatre experience seated up there in the balcony (the upper circle, or The Gods) that inspired. It’s probable that without having experienced that Saturday night at the Palladium I wouldn’t now be here writing a review about And In This Corner: Cassius Clay.

The play continues until March 3 and can be seen at The Black Theatre Troupe’s home in Phoenix on East Washington Street at the excellent Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center. There’s not a bad seat in the house.

Pictures Courtesy of Tim Trumble

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