Preview: And in This Corner: Cassius Clay
By Perry Tannenbaum
Adam Burke came to Charlotte because of his passion for youth theatre and education. After a stint as founding artistic director of Chicago Theatre for Young Audiences, Burke took a five-year detour into academia at a San Antonio university. When the artistic director position at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte came open, the ImaginOn theater facilities and the strong link with the CharMeck Library system became irresistible lures.
He took over at ImaginOn at the start of the 2013-14 season, concentrating his stage directing efforts on new works. Big new works like The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical and Ella’s Big Chance: A Jazz Age Cinderella – and richly entertaining extravaganzas like The Reluctant Dragon and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.
Now in his fifth season of overseeing Children’s Theatre’s programming, Burke knows better than ever that he’s speaking to the community as well as its children, a community that is visibly changing. Or maybe waking up to its true image in the mirror after years of blind complacency.
Opening this week, And in This Corner: Cassius Clay, directed by Aaron Cabell, is the second biographical study of its kind to play at ImaginOn in the past three years. Jackie & Me, about baseball great Jackie Robinson, opened in February 2015. Burke reflected on the challenges of presenting meaningful, impactful plays in our current climate.
Creative Loafing: Children’s Theatre presented Jackie & Me almost exactly three years ago, not long after And in This Corner: Cassius Clay premiered in Louisville, Muhammad Ali’s hometown. So was there discussion at that time about following up Jackie with Cassius, or is this series of Children’s Theatre productions about pioneering black athletes more accidental than intentional?
Adam Burke: We did not specifically intend to follow Jackie & Me with another piece about a pioneering black athlete. I was aware of this play being developed in Louisville when it was happening and was hoping that it would end up being a strong script that we could eventually produce. And in This Corner: Cassius Clay asks some big questions about the world that Cassius Clay lived in during the 1950’s and 1960’s – and equally about the world that we live in today.
In the current local climate, how are you hoping parents and children will process this story? How confident are you that the community will pass the test of hearing the N-word spoken at Cassius Clay?
We live in a very different world today than we did when we produced Jackie & Me three years ago. Both plays, Jackie & Me as well as And in This Corner: Cassius Clay, contain the N-word as written by the playwrights. Three years ago we proactively informed every school that intended to bring students that the playwright had included the word in the script. We did the same this season with And in This Corner: Cassius Clay.
Three years ago, we didn’t have any schools withdraw from coming to see the show due to the use of the N-word by the playwright. To date this season we’ve had several. We as parents, as teachers, and as a community, can’t be afraid to bring students to a play that deals with civil rights issues because of the use of the N-word. It’s a painful word to hear, and we abhor its use in everyday life, but pretending it doesn’t exist won’t help make anything better.
Cassius Clay, before and after he became Muhammad Ali, was brash, boastful and divisive before validating himself as “The Greatest.” How much does Idris Goodwin’s script filter out Clay’s not-so-role-model youthful traits?
In this play, Cassius Clay absolutely is a role model. This is a play about a young African-American boy who is learning some truths about the racism that exists in this community. He speaks his mind openly and confidently and asks big questions. I hope this play inspires all of our young audience members to live with their eyes wide open and to question everything.
Casting Cassius, how locked in were you to Clay/Ali’s signature physical traits? Were you able to find such an actor in Charlotte’s talent pool, or were you forced to reach out regionally or nationwide?
Ideally we wanted someone who looked a lot like Cassius Clay and had the ability to capture the spirit of the man. The director found an actor, Deon Releford-Lee, at our season auditions who he strongly felt could play the role. The directors at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte cast their own shows whenever possible.
Considering how important Children’s Theatre’s voice is in this town, do you feel a certain obligation to continue this series of historical dramas?
It is important that Children’s Theatre continues to support our community and tell stories that reflect our social, cultural and political climate. We have a lot of “irons in the fire” so to speak that we believe speak to our young audience and the world in which they live. We are currently deeply invested in The Kindness Project where we’ve committed to commission, create and produce three new plays based on books that all speak to themes of kindness. They each, in their own way, discuss the difference between feeling sympathy or empathy and committing an act of kindness. You can’t feel kind…you have to actually do something in order to be kind.