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Thursday Theater: And in This Corner: Cassius Clay

Written by M.V. Moorhead Category: Performing Arts Issue: January 2019
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The world's most famous boxer comes to life on stage in this new production.

And in This Corner: Cassius Clay—The center of Brunella Provvidente's fine set is shaped like a boxing ring, set at an angle to the audience, so that one corner points at us. In and around this ring the cast plays out Idris cassiusclayGoodwin's dramatization of the youth of Cassius Clay, the boy who would eventually become Muhammad Ali.

We get his childhood in Louisville, Kentucky, taught to cope with everyday racism by his parents and taught how to box by cop and coach Joe Martin. We see his rise through the amateur ranks toward the 1960 Olympics in Rome, his early encounters with local bullies and with his hero Sugar Ray Robinson, the impact of the murder of Emmett Till on Clay and his community, and many other episodes minor and major, sad and triumphant. Alongside his ascendency, we get a glimpse of the rise of the Civil Rights movement, and Clay's awareness, at first reluctant, of his need to join it.

The inventive, fluid direction of this co-production of the Black Theatre Troupe and Childsplay Theatre is by Michael Jerome Johnson, who also did the dreamlike fight choreography. The show is full of ingenious theatrical flourishes, like the use of bells and round placards to indicate scene changes, but far more importantly it has heart, thanks to the warmth and verve of the small cast, most of whom play multiple roles.

The keystone of the cast, needless to say, is Rapheal Hamilton, who plays Cassius from the age of twelve to young manhood. He bears the title character a certain resemblance, which helps, but he also captures a youthful, callow version of the man's unforgettable, mellow singsong—parts of his narration are in rhyme—and of his playful yet provoking wit. And he hints at yet another layer; the sweetness that lay behind the boastful riffs.

I briefly met Ali once, almost twenty years ago. Illness had largely taken his speaking voice by then, but the charisma hadn't faded, nor had the smile or the gleam in his eye; he mock-punched at several people present, including me. I suspect he wanted to give as many people as possible the chance to say that Muhammad Ali had once thrown a punch at them.

This generosity of spirit is, I think, what separates Ali's public persona from the pernicious tradition of "trash talk" that is now standard in sports and, increasingly, in politics and other spheres. Ali's act was more artful and funny, to be sure, but it was also undergirded by a palpable love of humankind. And in This Corner: Cassius Clay gives a suggestion of the origins of that spirit.

The show, which runs a little over an hour and is suitable for kids 9 and older, continues from Saturday, February 2 through Sunday, March 3 at the Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center, 1333 East Washington Street. Go to childsplayaz.org for showtimes and details.