Themes of racial injustice and childhood bullying come to life in a new Oregon Children’s Theater play about a young Cassius Clay set in segregated Louisville, Ky. before he changed his name to Muhammad Ali and won a series of heavyweight boxing championships.
“And in This Corner: Cassius Clay,” opening Saturday, March 3 is written by award-winning playwright, rapper and essayist Idris Goodwin and stars Portland actor La’Tevin Alexander.
Known for his bravado persona once he found his way into the public spotlight, Ali often spoke in rhymes or witty aphorisms, saying his style in the ring was to “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
In the play, audiences get treated to a glimpse of the young fighter as an unknown up and comer.
“You get to see how all the fundamentals and all the forces in his life are set in motion,” Alexander said. “He starts to see the world as it was and how it is for a black man in America. You get to see the caterpillar of the butterfly.”
Stan Foote, the Oregon Children’s Theater artistic director who co-directs the play, compared the tale to the origins of a super hero story, but in this case the beginnings of a sports and civil rights hero.
The play incorporates historically accurate language of 1950s Kentucky with mediations on race relations and humor to bring “so many great points of intersection for adults and kids,” Foote said.
Alexander, 26, will helm the role of the young Clay, whose boxing origins began at age 12 when his bike got stolen. Clay reported the theft to a police officer who then offered to teach him how to box and defend himself.
The young Clay took a knack to the sport immediately. Not only did he use his new found skills to defend himself against bullies, but quickly rose through the ranks of amateur boxing rings, garnering numerous Golden Glove awards and later, at age 18, an Olympic Gold Medal.
As a young man in the Jim Crow-era South, and a descendant of slaves himself, Clay was impacted by racial inequality and the 1955 murder of Emmet Till, a young boy around his age who was brutally tortured and killed in Mississippi, and whose murderers were acquitted, which sparked national outrage.
The young Clay took his frustrations out in the ring, where only his skill as a fighter and not the color of his skin determined his merit, right at the time when athletes of color in America were breaking through to the mainstream.
Alexander hopes the play will shed light on the historic civil rights era for the younger generation and spark conversations with their parents long after the curtain drops.
“The idea of segregation and Jim Crow laws are kind of hazy [for kids] and so they get to see this on stage and kind of have it explained to them. I would love if that conversation was being had,” he said.
Originally from Perry, Fla., Alexander had been inspired by Ali from an early age and even had dreams of becoming an all-star athlete himself.