The day I met with La’Tevin Alexander Ellis, the star of Idris Goodwin’s And In This Corner: Cassius Clay — The Making of Muhammad Ali, opening Saturday at Oregon Children’s Theatre, he had just come from teaching middle schoolers about the eponymous character of his piece, a role that has significant meaning for him. Ellis is uniquely suited to the role of teacher in this instance. Though Ali had retired a decade before Ellis was born, the boxing legend was a family hero.
“When I was growing up, in my house, my momma had posters of all these great black people, men and women, both here in America and elsewhere, and one of the main ones, one of the most consistent ones was Ali,” he said. “My momma loved him, my grandma loved him, my grandfather loved him.” Indeed, for Ellis, Ali forms the third corner of a personal trinity that also includes Malcolm X and Bob Marley. “What I learned from (Ali) is, ‘Live your life like it means something to you. Be great no matter what somebody else says. Do what you want to do’.”
Ellis, who grew up in Perry, Florida, and graduated from Florida A&M with a theater degree, came to Portland in 2014, one of many good young performers to join the city’s acting pool through Portland Playhouse’s apprentice program. If you know him at all, you know that his artistic life and political sensibility are deeply entwined. He’s the founder and artistic director of Confrontation Theatre, which aims to produce “engaging and challenging theater through the exceptionally unique Black perspective.” Somewhere, somehow, some part of his brain is always on the situation of black people in this country and what he can do about it.
This is also something he respects about Ali: “He was one of the first black men that I knew about that was a great athlete and who was not silent about the mistreatment of his people and his culture.” If you paid any attention at all to the anthem protests of this past football season, you know that such a stance does not come without cost. Now, imagine if you’re actually abstaining from joining the military when called upon. For this stance, for his outspokenness, for his visibility, the price for Ali was high. He was stripped of his championship and his livelihood for three of his prime fighting years, with the possibility of prison even hanging over his head.
When Ellis is talking to young people, these are all new facts that he is bringing them in on. “For the most part, they only know that he’s a boxer and they know that he was a really great boxer who talked a lot. That’s what they know. What I’m reminding them of is all the other stuff and all the historical things.”
Of course, all the history had to begin somewhere. That’s the territory that And In This Corner covers – the making of the myth; the birth of the legend. “It’s an origin story. It’s like any superhero origin story. You get to see all the forces that come together to make them who they are. And what propels them to be on the mission that they have set themselves on, or the journey they have set themselves on. That’s what you’ll see in this.”
(I don’t know that Ellis even knows how apt this metaphor is. Ali is, after all, the only athlete who ever fought Superman — and won!)
Few athletes of the American canon have a personal story that has so many mythic moments. According to Ellis, audiences for And In This Corner: Cassius Clay will see them all. “You’ll see me (Ellis as Ali) from eleven, right before the bike gets stolen that pushes me to go and want to learn how to fight. You’ll see Joe Martin, the guy who got him into the Columbia gym at first. You’ll see my younger brother Rudy, my parents, Odessa and Cassius Clay Sr. You’ll see my best friend, the character who is my best friend, who is a combination of other people in Muhammad’s life as a child. You’ll see me fight Ronnie O’Keefe, who is the very first fighter he ever fought in his amateur career. You’ll see his childhood bully, Corky Baker. Fred Stoner, the other trainer that helped him out other than Joe Martin when he was young.
“You’ll see Ziggy (Zbigniew) Pietrykowski, the guy who he fought (in the gold medal round) in the 1960 Olympics. Sugar Ray Robinson. So, you’re going to see a lot of different people. So yeah, you’ll see them and a host of other people. You’ll see three fights in the show. You’ll see the fight with Ronnie, the fight with the childhood bully and then the Olympic fight. And the way that we’re setting them up, choreographed by Damaris Webb, is pretty dope. It’s like a slow motion — fast — slow motion — fast and then we do like live action moving around — and then slow motion. It’s pretty lit.”
The boxing has presented its own challenges. Ellis trained hard in the fundamentals of boxing. The dilemma happened when his training conflicted with the reality of Ali — a fighter who was notorious for his distinctly unorthodox style. “When I’m in the gym and I’m working with the trainers (Stanley Dunn at Knott Street Boxing and Molly McConnell at McConnell Boxing Academy), and I’ll be hopping around or whatever and they’ll be, ‘Tev, you gotta go one foot then the other foot, one foot, then the other foot. And I’m like ‘Alright. Okay.’ And I’ll do the one foot and then the other foot. Then I’m working on my jabs and my straights. And I’m trying to do that lean and then that counter with the straight like Ali did and they’re going, ‘Nonononono, you gotta keep your hands up. You gotta take the contact and then give it back.’ And I’m like, ‘But he didn’t like to get hit.’ That was the frustrating part but also the eye-opening part about his greatness at the same time. To be in there doing this thing, like, I really wanted to learn what orthodox boxing is like. But then seeing, ‘Oh wow, he is not doing any of this, but is still knocking out people who are doing all of this.”
However, to break the rules properly, you first have to master them. Over the course of And In This Corner: Cassius Clay, you’ll also see that. “Every day, before rehearsal, before we do fight call, I start out hopping around as twelve-year-old Clay, and then I progress to fourteen-year-old Clay, then sixteen-year-old Clay, then eighteen-year-old Clay, when it’s all starting to solidify now, and then twenty-two year-old Clay when it’s just swagged out. I’m most proud of that. Because I do start out here (hands up) then slowly the hands drop as more confidence comes.”
(Ellis and I even did some friendly verbal sparring over the practicality of adopting Ali’s style in real life. Having played a boxer myself in The Set-Up for Cygnet Productions, and done a little sparring, I’m of the firm belief that Ali’s style is best left to an athlete with the preternatural gifts of Ali. Ellis, with all the confidence of youth, thinks he could approximate Ali’s style enough to win. My hope is that he never tries it against a real boxer. Luckily, Ellis assured me that he has no intention of changing professions. So, kids out there, keep your hands up!)
Audiences for And In This Corner: Cassius Clay will even see the moment when a disillusioned young Cassius Clay deliberately drops his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River in a personal protest against the mistreatment of his people back in the country of his birth. It is, perhaps, the most poetic moment in the play.
This is the thing about Muhammad Ali. It’s hard to convey to young people now that for nearly three decades, Muhammad Ali was the most recognizable face, the most famous man, in the world. His story, almost from the moment he came on the scene, was always about more than just boxing. When he talks to his students, Ellis makes sure that he communicates this. Naturally, as people have for generation after generation, the kids come around to Ali’s side. “They fall in love with Ali. They fall in love with his story, they fall in love with his will to fight, not only to fight in the ring, but to fight the government; not only to fight in the ring and the government but to fight Parkinson’s.”
Ellis doesn’t shy away from any of it. The fights, the politics, Jim Crow, it all comes to light. There is no greater myth of the American century than the story of Muhammad Ali. For Ellis, though, Ali has surpassed even myth. “He’s moved past the part of being a legend, and he’s moved on to become an ancestor.” And for Portland, LaTevin Alexander Ellis is a young man worthy of telling that story.
Oregon Children’s Theatre’s And in This Corner: Cassius Clay opens Saturday, March 3, and continues through March 25 in the Winningstad Theatre of Portland’5 Center for the Performing Arts. Ticket and schedule information here.