Muhammad Ali is one of those historical figures whose titanic cultural presence often overshadows the nuances of his life. Playwright Idris Goodwin aims to find the man behind the legend in his new work, And in This Corner: Cassius Clay, presented by Seattle Children’s Theatre. The result, as directed by Malika Oyetimein, is a lively and thoroughly original piece of theatre.
The story unfolds as if out of a pop-up-book on scenic designer Shawn Ketchum Johnson’s endlessly inventive whirligig of a set. The stage is styled after an old-school gym, with boxing equipment doubling as minimalistic, but instantly recognizable indicators of time and place. We first meet Ali (André G. Brown) in narrator form, speaking one of the many rhyming interludes that tie the narrative together (a tribute to Ali’s famous rhyme-heavy rebuttals that would remain a constant throughout his career). We are then transported to Jim Crow-era Louisville, Kentucky, where Ali remerges as a 12-year-old, then known by his birth name of Cassius Clay. There we are introduced to his mother Odessa (Bria Samoné Henderson) and younger brother Rudy (Chip Sherman), who have just left a Sunday church service. It soon becomes apparent that the realities of segregation dictate the way they behave in public and their freedom as individuals. These struggles are not lost on the Clay brothers, who, along with their friend Eddie (Lamar Legend), often talk about the heated racial climate with both childlike innocence and the clarity of first-hand experience. It is clear that Cassius is the natural leader of the pack, full of the spitfire force, pre-adolescent energy and unformed talent.
And in This Corner: Cassius Clay at Seattle Children's Theatre. Photo by Elise Bakketun.
When his beloved bike is stolen, Cassius alerts police officer Joe Martin (affable SCT regular Charles Leggett), and upon seeing burgeoning potential in the young boy, Joe takes Cassius as one of his boxing students. Cassius’ athletic ascent begins, as shown through one of the show’s many highlights, a training montage that's both cinematic and singularly theatrical. The transfixing sequence masterfully employs the use of shifting lighting, idiosyncratic movement, and reverberating vocalizations from the small, hard-working ensemble.
Cassius soon becomes a local boxing champion, and it’s not long (at least at the brisk pace of this tightly staged production) until he’s on his way to the Olympics. Yet in the midst of this triumph is a racially-divided landscape that calls into question Cassius’ sense of self-worth. As the Civil Rights movement gains traction, Cassius is caught between his own self-interest and the weight of his community. As we know, he ultimately chooses to use his platform to advocate against social injustice, no matter the costs. His political presence, whether speaking in support of Malcolm X or refusing to serve in Vietnam, is as integral to his persona as his boxing legacy.
All this is a lot for one actor to carry, and Brown is more than capable of filling Ali’s shoes. He makes the transition from buoyant firecracker to charismatic prize-fighter seem effortless. When adults play children, there is often a danger of veering into moppet-territory, headache-inducing caricature, or both. Luckily, these tropes are averted by Brown, Sherman, and Legend, who each give dynamic performances. The aforementioned ensemble is pitch-perfect and expertly implemented to their fullest extent by Oyetimein. Almost everyone plays more than one part, an impressive feat that is carried off with ease.
André G. Brown as Cassius Clay at Seattle Children's Theatre. Photo by Elise Bakketun.
The writing, however, is not without its problems. The interludes service the passing of time, but are otherwise somewhat tiresome. In such a fast-paced, tightly-staged play, they bring a discomforting halt to the proceedings. And though it’s true that Cassius was coached by a white police officer, it’s hard not to think of the history of police brutality towards African Americans when watching the play. In reality, Joe Martin was an avid member of the Civil Rights movement and owned the only integrated gym in Louisville. Disappointingly, Goodwin never addresses this, bypassing the opportunity to provide insight on a unique outlier in a racist nation.
That being said, Goodwin should be credited for writing a piece of children’s theatre that's engaging for both young and old audiences, maintaining a sense of vitality and historical relevance to audience members of all ages. By refocusing on the years that preceded his icon status, we are able to see Muhammad Ali through fresh eyes. In a cultural climate where villains seem to outnumber bonafide heroes, the theatrical presence of Muhammad Ali feels like a victory.