And In This Corner: Cassius Clay floats through the boxing legend’s early life as he transforms from an energetic and playful boy into the superhero he always wanted to be and endures the sting of bullying, segregation and scrutiny. Oregon Children’s Theater’s latest production is at once vibrant and thoughtful in its telling of the experiences that formed champion boxer and social activist, Muhammad Ali.
Immediately upon entering the theater you’re struck by the simplicity and symbolism of the set. It is a “black-box” style theatre, configured to put the boxing ring front and center, giving the audience ringside seats. The main level has semi-traditional seating on two sides (rows of elevated seats), but the other two sides are only one or two rows deep. Two balconies rise above the stage with only one row, so there isn’t a bad seat. The actors are careful to play to all sides, making the show feel more like an experience than a performance.
La’Tevin Alexander becomes Cassius Clay, growing into the role as we watch Clay grow into a man. Playing the character across a decade, he somehow managed to maintain Clay’s exuberant confidence and innate sense of fairness while still having the character grow and mature. Alexander’s performance was natural and captivating and magnetic, much like Cassius Clay himself.
The writing is exceptional and Alexander delivers it with both the spirit and cadence we’ve come to associate with Muhammad Ali. His quotes have become memes our children know well. Playwright Idris Goodwin weaves together rhymes and phrases so fluidly it’s hard to know what is a quote and what simply should be. Some of the best lines are gifted to the supporting cast, who get their share of laughs. Serious issues surrounding racism, segregation, and fairness aren’t softened or ignored, but met at the perspective of Clay’s age at the time.
The realities of segregation and the acceptance of it was especially resonant with my teenager. It’s one thing to read about it, but quite disturbing to watch, even within the safe environment of a children’s theater. When Cassius returns home after winning the gold medal and given the key to the city, but the diner still refuses to serve him, the shock and dissonance from the kids in the audience was palpable.
And In This Corner doesn’t shy away from difficult topics or situations, but it’s also full of laugh-out-loud moments like Cassius learning to jump rope, wanting to learn everything about boxing with the exuberance of a new puppy, being so afraid to fly he wears a parachute onto the plane, and pretty much anything his little brother Rudy says. This is great for tweens and teens who can relate with their own struggles with identity and belonging.
We usually give the program back at the end of the performance, but I kept this one. The quotes and discussion questions inside sparked a great conversation with my son. As a fan of live theater, I take my children to a play every year. As my boys have hit their teens they’re not as excited about it, but OCT consistently includes a performance for older audiences who might not want to wake up on a weekend to come downtown to watch their favorite picture book come to life. This play is recommended for ages 8 and up. Younger children struggled to sit still during the performance (a little over an hour with no intermission) and tended to need clarification about the vocabulary and history.
And In This Corner is staged at the Winningstad Theater in Hatfield Hall in downtown Portland. Limited street parking and surface lots are available, but most people opt for the City Center garage at 1000 Broadway. When the show lets out there is usually a mad rush across the street to wait in line for the elevators. Avoid the stampede and enjoy the displays in the hallways and lobby. (Currently an educational series on Vanport, artist renderings of the play and an interactive display showing interviews of Muhammad Ali. Much of the play is inspired by these interviews, so it’s fun for the kids to make the connection.)
A few minutes after the show, the cast comes out to sign autographs, take pictures and answer questions. The production runs through March 25th. Take the time to see the making of a legend, with or without your favorite kiddo.
- Review of Cassius Clay at OCT: A Legend Is Made - March 9, 2018
- Lights, Chitra, Action - February 5, 2018
- Rock the Presidents: Captivating, Covertly Educational Fun - October 3, 2016