Story: Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. is born in 1942 to a house painter and his wife, who two years later have another son named Rudy. Growing up in Louisville during the Jim Crow era, Cassius and Rudy are protected to a certain extent from the ugliness of the times by the love of their parents.
At age 12, Cassius is befriended by a white police officer named Joe Martin, who sees talent in the lad and encourages him to train as a boxer at a local community center. Cassius enjoys the sport of boxing and continues to improve under Martin’s watchful eye, eventually winning matches televised by a local TV station.
While his friend Eddie Green becomes more focused in high school on the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, Cassius sets his sights on calling out neighborhood bully Corky Baker. Baker’s lumbering moves are no match in a boxing ring for the quick, agile and athletic Cassius, who soundly defeats the villain to everyone’s joy.
When Cassius graduates from high school, Joe encourages him to participate in the 1960 Olympics in Rome, where he wins a gold medal. When his medal and subsequent ‘key’ to the city of Louisville prove worthless in getting served at a local restaurant, the hometown hero turned professional boxer realizes that helping advance civil rights is as much a part of his future as boxing.
Highlights: Playwright Idris Goodwin premiered his one-act drama about the early life of “Sportsman of the Century” Muhammad Ali in Louisville in 2015. Metro Theater Company currently is packaging its informative version of the 75-minute effort at the Missouri History Museum as part of “The Cassius Project.”
Other Info: In its comprehensive program for the play, the company describes “The Cassius Project” as “a series of community programs, wrap-around tools and resources with the production that will educate audiences and then engage and empower them to find ways to get personally involved in making St. Louis a stronger community.”
With the support of sponsors, Metro Theater Company is honoring one of its “St. Louis Superheroes” at each of the play’s public performances through February 28. The troupe also has collaborated with writer Jim Ousley and artist Ben Sawyer to create Corporal Kaylee and the Camera Eye, an interactive “superhero” comic book where students focus on their own abilities and realize that they can make a difference. A digital version is available at www.cassiusproject.com.
Noble as it is, And in This Corner…Cassius Clay also is somewhat simplistic, presented for audiences ages 8 and older. Given that the goal of the company is to potentially reach more than 11,000 people, including 8,000 children, the dialogue is naturally written at more of a school level.
That’s OK, as Metro Theater Company notes in its program that the play and “The Cassius Project” present “an opportunity to begin long-term change in St. Louis and address youth disenfranchisement.”
Director Julia Flood has carefully assembled a talented cast that conveys to largely youthful audiences what times were like when Muhammad Ali was growing up in the 1950s in Louisville. Scenic designer and technical director David Blake’s set shrewdly utilizes projection designer Michael Perkins’ expert assembly of vintage photos as backdrop for the kitchen of the Clay family at stage right and a makeshift boxing ring in the center.
The latter is sometimes hidden by a canopy and other times in open view, illuminated by Paige Seber’s lighting. Rusty Wandall adds street and crowd noises in his sound design and Lou Bird’s costumes match the era both for kids and adults. Emily Frei’s props seem suitable to the times, while fight director Drew Fracher devises the nifty moves affected by various boxers.
Goodwin infuses young Clay with a rhyming speech when he’s addressing the audience, referencing Ali’s subsequent penchant for poetry when taunting his opponents. As Clay, Trigney Morgan demonstrates the young Ali’s optimism and cheerful good nature as well as his strong work ethic, parental respect and growing social consciousness.
Carl Overly Jr. delights as the glowering, imposing Baker, who is not above acknowledging Cassius’ boxing prowess when the bully is chased out of the ring, and David Wassilak offers a wise portrayal of Clay’s devoted mentor Martin.
Phillip Dixon and Jeannitta Perkins are effective in the roles of Cassius’ parents, Cassius Clay Sr. and Odessa Clay, a hard-working and decent couple who encourage their children to succeed even as they struggle against the laws of segregation.
Jaz Tucker ably fills the part of Cassius’ friend Eddie, who becomes increasingly involved in social justice and exhorts the affable Cassius to take a stand for civil rights. Nicolas Tayborn capably portrays Rudy, who looks up to his older brother for inspiration. The earnest ensemble also features Katy Keating, Erik Kuhn, Maalik Shakoor and Kenyata Tatum.
There’s much to learn about the young man who eventually would be Ali, both in this play and all of the ancillary materials presented in tandem with its presentation at the Missouri History Museum. And in This Corner…Cassius Clay serves as entertainment and education for children and adults alike.
Play: And in This Corner…Cassius Clay
Company: Metro Theater Company
Venue: Lee Auditorium, Missouri History Museum, Lindell at DeBaliviere
Dates: February 26, 27, 28
Tickets: $14-$18; contact 932-7414, ext. 105 or email@example.com
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Victoria Lafferty