All The Greats Were Once Children

And In This Corner: Cassius Clay by idris goodwin

André G. Brown and Brace Evans in SCTs 2018 production of And in this Corner: Cassius Clay (Photos by Elise Bakketun)

André G. Brown and Brace Evans in SCTs 2018 production of And in this Corner: Cassius Clay (Photos by Elise Bakketun)

Written by award winning playwright, performer/poet, and essayist Idris Goodwin, And in This Corner: Cassius Clay, produced by Seattle Children’s Theatre, is an action-packed 70 minute look into the childhood of one of the most celebrated and significant figures of the 20th century, Muhammad Ali. Elegantly directed by Malika Oyetimein, acted with limitless energy by a gifted ensemble, and supported by strong literal and metaphorical design, everyone--adults, children, seniors--needs to see this play, twice. Run or dance--don’t walk--to Seattle Children’s production before it closes.

Born to Odessa Clay (Bria Henderson) and Cassius Clay Sr. (Brace Evans), older brother to Rudy (Chip Sherman), Cassius Clay’s (a perfect André Brown) journey into boxing begins in Louisville, Kentucky with a red Schwinn bicycle. His parents saved up for eight months to purchase it but while playing with friends, someone stole it! Fuming, 12 year old Cassius tells police officer/boxing coach Joe E. Martin (Charles Leggett) that once he finds the thief, he’s giving him a good whupping. Joe retorts, “You better learn how to box first.” Six years pass by in a whirlwind of matches, with many wins and few losses. Then, in the summer of 1960 at the first ever televised Olympics, he wins the Light Heavyweight gold medal. Though his impressive skills gain him fame, he cannot escape the realities of being Black in the Jim Crow south: from being refused water on a hot day at a white establishment to the horrific murder of Emmett Till. This young Black man has to make a choice: do what he loves by everyone else’s rules or his?

Upstage, three large poles extend from the ground to the grid; affixed perpendicularly to the poles at different heights are rotating metal beams. Upon these beams hang mostly signs--an homage to Clay Sr.’s profession--boxing equipment, and a lamp or two.These beams, with the help of levers, are manipulated by the ensemble to facilitate scene changes. Though aesthetically industrial and heavy-looking the contraptions are, like Ali’s footwork, nimble, fast, and delightfully unexpected. A wall of blue curtains upstage provides numerous entrances and exits; Oyetimein’s pacing surges forward without sacrificing the minutes of stillness that the play’s moments of seriousness demand.

In a pivotal scene, Clay has fought and won his first match, when his elation is interrupted by the arrival of his friend Eddie, holding a newspaper in hand, reading aloud the cover article, “Nation Shocked by Lynching of Chicago Youth”. While all other onstage action pauses, Eddie, portrayed by Lamar Lewis, reads aloud the short article about Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy the same age as Clay, tortured, shot in the head, and drowned in the Tallahatchie River for allegedly whistling, grabbing, and yelling obscenities in a corner store at Caroline Bryant, a white woman.

The brutality of Till’s death and the aquitting of his murderers sparked national outrage and was a catalyst for the civil rights movement. In 2008, in an interview with historian Timothy Tyson, Bryant admitted that the allegations she made against Till “were not true”. These past few months, news outlets such as The New York Times and CNN have reported on multiple cases of white people calling the police on Black people doing routine things: sleeping in a campus lounge, walking into their apartment building, or like Emmett Till, at a corner store. Police officers in the US shoot and kill hundreds of Black people at disproportionate rates: Black people accounted for 31 percent of police killing victims in 2012, even though they made up just 13 percent of the US population. Sixty-three years after Till’s death, America is still racist, and still killing innocent Black people.

Goodwin’s script is a combination of direct audience address, traditional dialogue, and rhythmic poetry. Famous for trash-talking, often in the form of rhymes and spoken word, in and out of the ring, many people do not know that Ali was dyslexic. Later in life, he recorded two spoken word and political poetry albums and many consider his style as the groundwork for what would later become hip-hop and rap, the genre anthems of disenfranchised inner-city Black youth. At times outlandish and oversized, he was always outspoken. This production introduces an element--not explicitly included in the script--that brings to musical life his unique voice. A combined effort on behalf of Oyetimein, Sherman (Rudy), and Henderson (Odessa), young Cassius’s monologues are turned into infectious raps and choreographed step routines that move us from one scene to the next. The ensemble steps and claps in time, vocalizing over their rhythms; sometimes mimicking his beating heart after a match, or an anticipatory crowd waiting with baited breath. Stepping has its roots in military march drills and African foot dancing, and beginning in the 1900s historically Black fraternities and sororities would use step routines to induct and celebrate initiations. With their actions, the ensemble literally celebrates the boy that Cassius is and inducts him into the man he would become. The decision of the director and ensemble to include these interludes is a layer of Black history that makes this already rich story even richer. Bravo.

Focusing on only six years of his incredible life, this formative time is crucial to share with audiences of all ages but especially children. It is never too early to talk to our children about violence and justice, and this play is an important vessel for that conversation. Otherwise, we will continue to perpetuate ignorance, privilege, and oppression.

In 2016, researchers with Stanford University found that Black students in Seattle tested three and a half grade levels behind their white peers. In October 2017, teachers across Seattle wore shirts that read “BLACK LIVES MATTER” and white parents wrote emails of displeasure to principals. The action was, ‘too political’, ‘too militant’, confusing their white children. During the same year the city spent approximately $40 million to reduce the gap in academic achievement among ethnic groups in Seattle schools yet an updated study found that the inequities had gotten worse; the gap had widened to 3.7 grade levels. Despite the investment by the city, and the action taken by local teachers, both awareness and action to support equity for Black children remain stifled by white supremacy.

Cassius Clay would grow into a Muhammed Ali: an activist, champion, musician, and poet who would shape the political conversation around Black oppression, empowerment, and white supremacy. One of his monikers was “The Greatest”. In This Corner reminds us it isn't 'inherent’ ability that separates the ‘greats’ from the ‘not greats’; rather, gross inequities perpetuated by white supremacy separate them. All the greats were once children and all children are capable of being great if we would just stop deporting, jailing, killing them.

Running now until November 25, click HERE to purchase tickets.

·      And In This Corner: Cassius Clay Produced by: Seattle Children’s Theater

·      And In This Corner: Cassius Clay by: Idris Goodwin

·     And In This Corner: Cassius Clay Directed by: Malika Oyetimein

·       And In This Corner: Cassius Clay  October 11 - November 25, 2018

·      Review Lead: Sara Porkalob