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Metro Theater Company Stages "And In This Corner Cassius Clay"

Trigney Morgan stars as the young Cassius Clay Jr., before Clay took the name Muhammad Ali, in "And In This Corner ... Cassius Clay," written by award-winning playwright Idris Goodwin. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
February 10, 2016
Since February is Black History Month, many notable African Americans will be highlighted in various ways, one being live theater. Metro Theater Company is using the medium to tell the early story of one of the most celebrated boxing figures in black history — Muhammad Ali.

"And In This Corner Cassius Clay" runs Feb. 12-28 in Lee Auditorium at the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park. It is the second theater to stage the play since its premiere at StageOne Family Theatre in Louisville, Ky., which is Ali's birthplace. School matinees for the play began Feb. 1, with question and answer sessions for students at the end of each show.

Actor Trigney Morgan has the starring role as the young Cassius Clay Jr., before Clay took the name Muhammad Ali. David Wassilak plays Officer Joe Martin, Clay's boxing coach.

"I hope it will destroy the idea that all cops are bad, and (reinforce) that if you really believe in yourself and work toward something, there are people who will back you up," Morgan said. "Joe Martin didn't see him as a black boy, but as a young man with great potential, and he wanted to help him to achieve that."

"And In This Corner" was written by Detroit-bred, award-winning playwright Idris Goodwin. Set in the segregated city of Louisville, Ky., the play shows how Ali is discovered and trained as a boxer by a white cop, Joe Martin.

"In This Corner ... Cassius Clay," presented by the Metro Theater Company, runs Feb. 12-28 in Lee Auditorium at the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)

The play shows how one person helped another fulfill his dreams, looking past race, stereotypes and adversity.

"I wanted to create a play based on the young life of Muhammad Ali when he was an average kid growing up in Louisville right at the start of the Civil Rights Movement," Goodwin said. "As a boxing fan, an Ali fan and a fan of writing for young audiences, it was a match made in heaven. I joked that I would have paid them to let me write it."

The play's racial and social undertones were also important factors in telling Ali's story.

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"Sadly, some of the issues that young Clay faced are still present," Goodwin said. "We no longer have Jim Crow laws, but we are not far enough and still the racial tension exists."

Panel Discussion

The 7:30 p.m. evening and weekend performances of "And In this Corner" will have a panel discussion after each show just like the student matinees. Prior to each show, Metro will have its Honoree Program. This is where a theme from a play is created by Metro's board of directors and then they honor people in the community who are either examples or who are striving toward the theme.

"And In This Corner's" theme is "St. Louis Superheroes." One of the honorees is arts educator Diane Davenport, who attended Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963 in Washington, D.C.

Additionally, Metro has partnered with various St. Louis educators and community leaders to create an anchor program called "The Cassius Project." It is a series of programs designed to educate theater audiences and youth and empower them to find ways to get involved in making St. Louis a stronger community.

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"Our mission is inspired by the intelligence and emotional wisdom of young people and nurturing through the arts and building communities," said Julia Flood, artistic director of Metro and director of "And In This Corner."

Flood also played a significant part in bringing the play to Metro.

"I am involved with a national board (Theater for Young Audiences), and a colleague of mine through that organization emailed me the play, just out of the blue, and said, 'You must read this play,'" she said. "She'd never done that before, so I did. I was looking for a play like this because of what our community had gone through the last couple years."

Finding Cassius Clay

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Last May, Flood began auditions for the cast. In total, there are 11 actors in "And In This Corner Cassius Clay." All are from St. Louis, except for the lead actor, 24-year-old Morgan, who is from Chicago. Flood said the process of finding the right actor to play Cassius Clay was challenging.

"I was hoping to choose an actor from St. Louis because of the impact it would have in the community," Flood said. "There were actors I really liked but the actor had to be at least six-feet tall, who was young or looked young, who was at least enough of an athlete that he could look like a boxer, and an actor with heart to tell the story."

Morgan was recommended by a director Flood knew in Chicago named Tom Artevis who is the artistic director of Adventure Stage theater.

"He had recently done a workshop that Trigney was in and said, 'I think we have the guy for you,'" she said. "So we auditioned him through Skype and he got the part."

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Ironically, the role is the same one that Morgan auditioned for at StageOne in Louisville. He was called back several times, but didn't land the part.

"I wanted that role so badly," Morgan said. "I was like, my time will come."

And it did. Last September, Flood called and told him he got the part after a month of auditioning. Morgan received the script and began preparing for the role of playing Clay from ages 12 to 21, mentally as well as physically.

"Ali was a jokester when he was growing up, naive and fearless about the world," Morgan said. "I was already in good shape, but Ali was in great shape, so I just wanted to get in that mindset of going to the gym all the time, doing cardio and jumping rope, and capture all of that."

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Morgan also worked with famed fight choreographer Drew Facher and the St. Louis All Star Gym to learn Ali's boxing techniques.

"Ali was such an unorthodox fighter and so fast. Trying to imitate his style was difficult," he said. "I've also watched a lot of his fights. He was extremely confident, boisterous and super intelligent, a great fighter, and he made sure everyone knew that he was unstoppable."

Playwright Goodwin, Flood and Morgan each hope the play will make a change for those who come to see it.

"I just hope folks leave excited, moved, frustrated, inspired," Goodwin said. "As long as they don't leave ambivalent, I feel like I've done my job."

"We want St. Louis to become a community where every young person can reach their full potential without barriers," Flood said.

Morgan added to that sentiment.

"I want people to leave with an immense amount of hope, especially the young ones," he said.

Showtimes for "And In This Corner Cassius Clay" are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sundays. Tickets are $12-$18 and available at http://cassiusproject.com or by calling the Metro Theater Box Office at 314-441-5792.

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