“And In This Corner: Cassius Clay” tells a portion of Muhammad Ali’s story that I didn’t know. My first memory is the 70’s Ali, past his prime but far from over, bromancing it up with Cosell. Next was Old Ali, riddled by Parkinson’s, but still going, devilish twinkling eyes peering out. It wasn’t till later that I came to know the reasons for his conversion to Islam, his conscientious objection, and his role as civil rights icon.
When BITN was invited to see SCT’s version, I was excited. In my opinion SCT is more daring as a Company than just about any major theatre in the Emerald City.
SCT is not shy. Social issue plays for young audiences is something, (among many other things), that SCT does well, with respect and devotion.
The play takes place long before there was a Muhammed Ali as we knew him, when he was Cassius Clay, older brother, friend, not so much trouble-maker than tale-teller in the Jim Crow South of the early 1950’s Louisville Kentucky.
SCT’s production of “In This Corner” is directed by young phenom Malika Oyetimein. Malika, (like yours truly), is a Seattle transplant by way of Philadelphia, and over the course of her rapidly rising career she has owned her work, earning rave reviews and awards along the way with productions such as the original stage production of Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” and Seattle Reps “BootyCandy”. She’s a director dedicated to the message, and at first glance it seems that she would be a logical choice to mount this production.
The combination of the true story of the making of Ali, woven into the fabric of the Jim Crow South that was designed to keep him down seems right in her directorial, personal and social wheelhouse.
The results are mixed here. Let me be clear; there’s a lot to love about this production, but it seems that there were deliberate choices made that lessened the impact of what was happening in the world around the characters.
…The show opens with Cassius, his younger brother Rudy and mother Odessa. The show wants you to know that they live within a sort of apartheid, with Odessa holding up her walk to allow whites to cross their paths, seperate and unequal. When Cassius and Rudy attempt to get a drink of water on that sweltering day, they are turned away from a diner not serving blacks.
The intimate Paccar theatre was packed, and warm on the stuffy side, but instead of being uncomfortable I actually found myself accepting it and allowing it to transport me to that hot day.
Scenic Designer Shawn Ketchum Johnson’s bio describes him as a “Theater-maker”, a designer that specializes in site-specific and devised (see pop-up) performance. The set, a simple backdrop of dirty, blue pipe and drape, with a painted floor reminiscent of a High School gym, works well with the idea behind the production. Standing along the stage, a series of rusty poles, hung with articulated metal beams that are turned out and adorned with props; signs, speed bags, that are turned by the cast to change scenes.
… A year later, at the Black Expo, Cassius is still going on about his lunch counter encounter the year before. Showing some of what would later be Ali’s trademark, Cassius cant help but embellish the tale so that he is the hero, loved by the whites there, invited to “join the family”. His brother and their friend, Eddie, spend their time ribbing each other. But when it’s time to go, Cassius’ bicycle is missing!
Lighting Designer Matthew Webb, (who designed lighting for the exceptional “Ben Uchida” last season), is on hand for “In This Corner” and produces his usual magic. Malika seems to have an extremely cinematic eye for direction, and Webb uses his lighting to great effect, (One particular moment, when Eddie is participating in a sit-in, is searing in both it’s direction and it’s lighting; the degradation of Eddie, bathed in an ugly yellow-orange light, perfectly conveys the moment).
… When Cassius meets Police officer Joe Martin and proclaims that he will “Whup him so bad he’ll never steal again”, it’s Joe who offers Cassius an alternative; Channel his energy by joining him at the Columbia Gym, and learn what fighting is really all about.
When I was at Oregon Children’s Theatre, Artistic Director Stan Foote told me with pride how OCT had gone into the community to find a young actor who could portray Cassius age-appropriately. SCT has gone a different route, casting adults to play the roles of Cassius, Rudy and Eddie. As a theatrical convention, it’s normal. I have been involved in theatre for decades and along the way I was cast in productions that required me to start as a child and grow up during the course of the play.
The cast, and the chemistry, is stellar here. As Cassius, actor Andre G. Brown holds the show easily on his shoulders. Not a dead ringer for Ali, he nonetheless pulls off the boastfulness of the man himself. It is interesting and more than a little difficult to portray a man before he was “The man”, slipping into the skin of an awkward teen then evolving with the material but Brown, indeed the whole cast, makes the transition smooth and enjoyable.
Younger brother Rudy, (played by Actor Chip Sherman), may have the most difficult task here. He is even younger than Cassius at the start. It can be a slippery slope, playing a boy under 10, the whole thing can go over into parody pretty quick, but Sherman rides that line well, allowing Cassius and Eddie to steer things as the older boys, following along, a bundle of energy.
It is Eddie, (played by Lamar Legend), that shows the most growth. He is Cassius’ friend, and he’s the social conscience throughout. It’s Eddie who delivers the bad news of the murder of Emmitt Till, it’s Eddie who becomes the social activist, who goes to the sit-ins and ultimately joins the Freedom Riders. Legend grows the most on the stage, and his devotion to non-violence set against Cassius’ path of controlled violence is a nice contrast.
Officer Joe Martin, (played by Charles Leggett) acts as Clay’s mentor. It’s Joe who offers to teach young Cassius how to channel his anger and energy, to instill the discipline of the sport of boxing.
(Perhaps it’s a sadder indictment of today’s times, but the idea of a police officer, in Jim Crow Louisville Kentucky, encountering a young black boy, and instead of assuming or dismissing, instead offers him a more peaceful alternative, struck me as strange.)
The ensemble is solid. Father Cash, (played by Brace Evans), and mother Odessa, (played by Bria Samone Henderson), are rock solid. Cash is a sign painter, Odessa a mother, and their love for their sons and for each other is evident. They play the roles smartly, and you can feel that they know the drill in a Jim Crow world.
… Cassius shows up at the gym and so begins Joe’s shaping of the young champion to be. Weeks of training turn into months, as Cassius’ confidence and skill grows, somewhat to the detriment of his grades, and the relationships with his friends.
Again, there is a cinematic element to this. It’s staged as a montage. As the ensemble stands upstage, they join in a rhythmic stomping and clapping. This occurs several times throughout the production. I am not certain if this is in the written play or a convention of the Director, but it works. Part of Ali’s persona was his rhyming. He was a poet in his own way, and adding this rhythmic stomping and clapping behind Clay helps to invigorate the many times Clay breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience.
… Soon Cassius has the opportunity for his first real fight. Joe gets him on the television show “Tomorrow’s Champions”, and arranges for Clay to box another, much bigger white boy. Clay shows an uncharacteristic trepidation at fighting the larger boy, and the effects of Jim Crow creep in too; Clay finds it difficult to take on a white opponent, it goes against the grain. It’s Cash in his son’s corner, telling him that when they are in the ring “You’re not colored, or white, you’re fighters!”
…When Cassius wins the bout, he realizes that Joe has taken him as far as he could, and begins to train under Fred Stoner, the legendary trainer, (who would eventually take Cassius Clay to Muhammed Ali heights).
I simply do not have the space here to delve too deeply into the history of Jim Crow. At it’s most simplistic, Jim Crow laws were a morphing of physical slavery of the pre-Civil War era into socio-political slavery post. Essentially an evil amalgam of state and local laws concocted by white Democratic Legislatures after Reconstruction, Jim Crow espoused the “Seperate but Equal” guise, while at the same time denying human rights to blacks.
And here is where I think the production misses the mark a bit. Jim Crow is there, present throughout the show, but each time it reaches in to impact Cassius’ story with the wider world, it misses.
Yes, Clay and his brother are denied a drink, and Eddie is humiliated at a sit in, but the moment when Eddie tells Cassius about the murder of Emmitt Till, Clay seems to not quite understand, or really care. There was a choice to be made here, it seems, and Director Malika has chosen to focus on Clay’s rise, and the social injustice is given less gravity. Yes, it’s there, it’s creeping around but it seems to be treated as a given, it’s only the character of Eddie who seems to be aware of it’s presence.
… While the future champ continues to hone his skills, enter neighborhood bully Corky Baker. Played by actor Andrew Lee Creech.
It’s a perfect storyline for a play for Young Audiences, the take down of the bully by the underdog, and the production has fun with it. Lee Creech starts off cartoonish. His entrance is comic; the larger than life recollection of Clay, he enters carrying a prop barbell in one hand, a scowling oaf, scaring the others, taking their lunch.
… It’s Cassius’ talking smack about Corky that sets up the confrontation. Clay gets Corky into the ring instead of the street, and his training makes short work of the street-fighter Baker. With the neighborhood kids out from under the yoke of Corky, Cassius’ status is on the rise.
… At this point the play turns its attention to the 1960 Rome Olympics. It is the first time that Clay has left Louisville. Or Traveled by airplane. Or stepped from his bubble. On the way to Rome, he travels to New York, writing to his family about his encounter with his hero, Sugar Ray Robinson, at a club in NYC.
Robinson, (a dual Role for Eddie actor Lamar Legend), appears as cameo, a full of himself dandy, brushing Clay’s attempts at introduction like so many gnats, too busy and too aware of his own greatness to care. Clay vows to be the better man, the better role model.
It is true that Clay was so afraid to fly that he brought his own parachute, and wore it, on the trip to Europe. And it is also true that he won the gold by beating the Polish Heavyweight Zbigniew Pietrzykowski in a split decision. But again, this pivotal moment seemed lost. The staging for this fight, (in fact for all the fight scenes), was lackluster at best. I can see the dilemma; shallow narrow stage, not a lot of room for a boxing ring.
However the pantomime of entering and exiting the ring, the actual boxing capabilities of the actors, and the oddly positioned “ring”, (a corner of a square of light), stilted the impact for me.
… With his Olympic win, Clay becomes a press darling in Europe. As a black American he is inevitably asked about his feelings on race relations. Clay brushes the topic to the side, saying America is working on it.
… Clay returns to the states to the same, sad hypocrisy that greeted so many Black men of the time; cheers and adulation in one ear, and told he is not welcome in the other. Clay remains undeterred by it. While Eddie joins the Freedom Riders, Clay begins to train for his first professional fight.
At the end of the show, Clay breaks the wall for the final time to address the audience. It’s a classic Ali rhyme, mostly about himself and his future …
Critics are like Weather people. I can tell you what we see, but that doesn’t mean I’m right, or that it won’t rain tomorrow. There is so much I loved here. The stark “Site Specific” look of the set, the Chemistry of the cast, the overall production, and most of all the fearlessness of the Director and the SCT organization.
But there was also something missing a little bit here. I am not sure if it is a function of the written word or the choices of the director. Perhaps I just totally missed it, what do I know.
But in the end this is what is exciting about a company like Seattle Children’s Theatre. SCT is fearless. Not in just the shows they choose and the discussions they hope to raise, but also the risks they take in terms of production.
I have had the pleasure of seeing a lot of productions at SCT. “In This Corner” feels like found space theatre, like something I would have seen in my 20’s when I was doing small theatre troupe theatre in NYC. And that’s a good thing, trust me.
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