Monday, October 29, 2018

Muhammad Ali started life as Cassius Clay – Get to know him at SCT!

A moment from And in This Corner: Cassius Clay (Elise Bakketun)
And in This Corner: Cassius Clay
Seattle Children’s Theatre
Through November 25, 2018

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” That quote might immediately bring Muhammad Ali to mind. He was known for pithy poetic sayings and poetry and rhyming were signatures of his career. But before he was Muhammad Ali, he was Cassius Clay, a young boxer who trained hard and went to the Olympics, winning a gold medal in boxing.

Cassius Clay’s early days and the tumult of the Civil Rights era are the focus of a new play at Seattle Children’s Theatre, And in This Corner: Cassius Clay, by Idris Goodwin. Directed by newly-minted University of Washington MFA Malika Oyetimein, a robust cast beats out a rhythmic telling of his life from age 11 to his Olympic victory and the challenges along his way.

It’s 1953 and Cassius is 11 and is thirsty. He wants to go into a diner to get a glass of water and his mother tells him he can’t. It’s a “whites only” establishment. This is an introduction to young people in Seattle about what the overt, standard racism of the South was like not so many years ago. For many years it was accepted and lived with as “just the way things are” until the swell of young people protesting brought forth the necessary changes to society.

The play is not all that sophisticated in its written form. It focuses more on the feeling and the rhythm, adding rhythmic elements to the production that cause a more visceral reaction. It should be easy for children as young as 5 and 6 to understand, though “why” there were whites only establishments is not easy to understand today. That might be a big conversation on the way home.

The highlights of Clay’s early life are displayed and Andre G. Brown, as Clay, often speaks to the audience in rhyme. Playwright Goodwin, asked about what he found as the genesis of Clay/Ali’s penchant for rhyming, said that he really couldn’t identify when it started or why, but he felt that any play about Ali had to include poetry or it would be garbage.

As is usual for a Seattle Children’s Theatre cast, the cast is terrific and adroitly manages changes into multiple characters. The versatile set by Shawn Ketchum Johnson has various hooks and arm joints above the stage that can pull out boxing equipment and push it back as needed. Various signs announce the Whites Only Establishment and other quick ways of identifying places and information.

Brown is a well-rounded, appealing Clay with a pugnacious but also charming manner. He’s helped out by an adorable turn by Chip Sherman as his little brother Rudy, a role that is funny and help set the tone for Clay’s protective nature. Brace Evans and Bria Samone Henderson play Clay’s father and mother.

Lamar Legend takes on the role of Clay’s best friend Eddie. Eddie is not exactly historical, but is an amalgamation of the friends around Clay, and helps show those who taught Clay why he should take on the burden of protesting against black exploitation and diminution.

An important scene toward the end is when Clay comes back from the Olympics and the mayor of his town, Louisville, Kentucky, says his gold medal is the “key to the town.” With that “key,” Clay attempts to get served at a Whites Only establishment and is rejected. He is so disappointed that he tells stories later that he chucked the medal into the river.

This is a moving and accessible production that the whole family can enjoy. At roughly 75 minutes, it can entertain most children without strain. And while you might think that Seattle Children’s Theatre is only for kids, productions like these prove that even finicky adults can enjoy great theater.

For more information, go to or call 206-441-3322. 

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