A bell sounds, and a young fighter named Cassius Clay Jr. steps into the ring. Before becoming a strong civil rights advocate and one of the world’s greatest boxers known as Muhammad Ali, he was a boy learning to navigate life in the 1950s segregated South.
His story is told in “And in This Corner: Cassius Clay,” coming to the Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center in Phoenix on weekends Jan. 27 through March 3. It takes place in and around Louisville, Kentucky, where Ali was born, and ends at the start of his professional boxing career as he reaches young adulthood.
Co-producing the production are Childsplay, a nationally renowned theater for young audiences, and Black Theatre Troupe, one of the longest-running black theater companies in the United States. How did these two theater companies decide to team up?
“The short answer is we both love the script by Idris Goodwin,” says Dwayne Hartford, Childsplay’s artistic director. “It’s written for young audiences and families, which is of course what Childsplay does.”
Hartford says he fell in love with the play as soon as he read it.
“I felt that it was an important story for all young people, but with Muhammad Ali’s connection to Phoenix, [it’s] especially relevant to Arizona audiences.”
Ali died on June 3, 2016, at age 74 in a Scottsdale hospital. He lived in Arizona for many years and was actively involved in research for Parkinson’s disease in Arizona. The Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center was established in 1997 at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix. Older Phoenix residents may remember that Ali even appeared on “The Wallace and Ladmo Show,” a long-running local children’s TV program.
“Childsplay approached Black Theatre Troupe with the idea of a partnership, because we knew that they had the expertise with shows dealing with African-American experiences,” Hartford says, adding “I love the idea of collaborating with another Valley institution, especially one of BTT’s prestige and caliber.”
Directing the production is nationally acclaimed fight director and master instructor Michael Jerome Johnson, whose work has been seen at the Kennedy Center and the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.
Johnson says his major challenge with “And in This Corner” is that he both directs the show and choreographs the fights. “I usually do one or the other, not both.” In fact, he’s only done both once before, when he was still in school. “But I love the challenge this play presents to me,” he adds. “It’s given me the opportunity to look at the show from two different, distinct angles, and how I must meld both to tell a cohesive story. Which means I’m continuing to learn after so many years in theater.”
Taking the title role of Cassius Clay is Rapheal Hamilton, who has been in several previous Black Theatre Troupe productions: “Broke-ology,” “Two Trains Running” and “Seven Guitars.”
What sets this role apart from the others, he says, is “the opportunity to honor one of the most, if not the most, iconic figure in sports history, Muhammad Ali. There haven’t been many projects in terms of movies and stage plays about him, so I felt like this was a chance to be a part of something amazing.”
To prepare physically for the role, he began training in September and rode a bike to rehearsals to keep up his stamina and endurance. In addition, he says, the show’s director has the cast practicing fight choreography the first part of rehearsals and before each performance.
“I am honored to be playing such an important individual like Mr. Muhammad Ali,” Hamilton says, “and I hope this story has an impact on people and inspires others to reach for greatness in their own lives.”
Childsplay recommends “And in This Corner: Cassius Clay” for ages 9 and up and notes it does contain a racial slur. At one point, young Ali tells a friend what some hateful people called him during a sit-in. This was the reality of Ali’s life in that era, and the playwright uses the word to help the audience understand.
Ali was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a 2005 and has been the subject of two films: “Ali” (2001), starring Will Smith, and “I Am Ali,” a 2014 documentary.
“This play is about Ali as a child in the segregated south of the 1950s,” Hartford says. “It ends as Cassius Clay is about to become a professional boxer. Do people … consider him controversial? For speaking up and making a stand against racism? I want to believe that we as a people have come to recognize Ali as the true American hero that he was. … I can’t think of a better story for young people to hear.”
And In This Corner…Cassius Clay: The Making of Muhammad Ali (Jan. 27-March 3) is a co-production of Childsplay and Black Theatre Troupe at the Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center in Phoenix.