Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Goodwin starts his piece in Clay's hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, in segregated 1953. When his bicycle is stolen, 12-year-old Cassius seeks help from policeman Joe Martin. Martin sees potential in the passionate boy, who is ready to find and fight whoever took his bike, and tells him to come by his gym for formal training. Over the course of the 70-minute play we follow Clay's growth both in the ring and out as he stands up to the town bully, finds success in local and national boxing matches, and travels to Italy to compete in the 1960 Olympics.
Goodwin places the story of Clay's success against the racial strife and unrest that was constantly present throughout the period the play covers, including the 1955 murder of the black 14-year-old Emmett Till that made national headlines. When questioned about racial issues in America by a reporter at the Olympics, Cassius states that he's just a boxer and not a politician. But his friend Edie, who is leaving Kentucky to become a Freedom Rider, tells him that now is the time to speak up and to use his celebrity status to help his community. It's then that Cassius realizes that he no longer is there to fight just for himself but for those who can't.
The fast-paced nature of the piece ensures that a lot of years and territory are covered in Clay's early life. Goodwin uses an older Cassius Clay as a narrator throughout to comment on the action, including having him speak in a rhyming cadence that the older Ali was famous for. Michael Jerome Johnson's direction is insightful and precise, which plays out well on Brunella Provvidente's scenic design that features pop-out elements and a reproduction of part of a boxing ring to quickly transport us to the many locations in the play. Neil McFadden's sound design includes an effective musical underscore and realistic sound effects. Johnson also supplies the fight choreographer which provides several authentic moments. There isn't a weak link in the large cast, with many creating a number of believable characters and delivering compelling performances.
As Cassius, Rapheal Hamilton expertly captures the conviction, determination and drive beneath this gifted young athlete who became an American hero and helped bridge the racial divide. He delivers an exceptional knock-out performance that beautifully portrays both the youthful charm of the 12-year-old boy who lacked confidence and who had fears he needed to overcome, as well as the older man who was self-assured and used his power for good. Hamilton is warm, winning, full of charm and humor in an all-around expert portrayal of this famous man who was a hero to so many.
Louis Farber delivers an assured, direct and beautiful portrayal of Joe Martin, the man who helped guide Cassius to success and who also helped him overcome his fears. Clay's parents, played by Cynnita Agent and Khalid Bilton, are devoted but also stress discipline, and Shawn Hansen is confident and honest as Edie, Clay's friend who makes him realize what he is truly capable of and how he can use his fame for good. Frederick Alphonso, Sten Eikrem, Katie McFadzen and Kerry Paige all excel in a range of parts.
And in This Corner: Cassius Clay is an absorbing, engaging and educational origin story of Muhammad Ali. With a cast who deliver rich performances and an impactful portrayal of the young Cassius Clay by Rapheal Hamilton, it has humor, history and heart, but is also a reminder of the horrors that happened to so many African Americans during that time, and that unfortunately still happen today.
The Childsplay and Black Theatre Troupe production of And in This Corner: Cassius Clay, through March 3, 2019, at the Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center, 1333 East Washington Street, Phoenix AZ. Tickets can be ordered at www.childsplayaz.org.
Written by Idris Goodwin
Cast: (in alphabetical order)