Idris Goodwin

For the past decade, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions program has commissioned playwrights to examine turning points in U.S. history. Playwright Idris Goodwin has heeded the call with his new play, The Way the Mountain Moved, a revisionist look at a supposedly well-known piece of American history: how the West was won.

Not your typical white cowboy heroes, Julian Remulia (from left), Maddy Flemming, Sara Bruner and Al Espinosa represent other figures of the American West in “The Way the Mountain Moved” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Photo: Jenny Graham.

Specifically, The Way the Mountain Moved — which continues through October 28 — is set in Utah in the 1850s. The cast of characters is made up primarily of people who have long been ignored by the American Western: There are African-American Mormons (yes, they exist), Mexican immigrants, single women and their daughters, Native Americans. With this play, Goodwin, OSF, and director May Adrales point out the hypocrisy inherent in American Westerns (not to mention in this country, in general), with their singular focus on the white cowboy as hero, when we all know the white cowboy character (and, in fact, our country) were built upon the backs of people of color and women, so long and largely ignored.

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Stars rising: Clay and Ellis

La'Tevin Alexander Ellis is a star on the rise playing a star on the rise in Oregon Children's Theatre's "And in This Corner: Cassius Clay"

It’s pretty incredible to witness a star in the making – and that’s exactly what you’ll see at Oregon Children’s Theatre’s latest, And in this Corner: Cassius Clay – The Making of Muhammad Ali.

You wouldn’t be foolish to assume I am talking about Cassius himself, the someday Greatest, the future champ whom this magnificent play by Idris Goodwin is about. But, in fact, the star in the making you’ll witness is La’Tevin Alexander Ellis, the young actor who plays Cassius.

Ellis has all the right moves to play Cassius – from the innocence of the sweet 12-year-old boy who loves his mom and dad (Damaris Webb and Eric L. Island, both understated and letting Ellis’s star shine), his brother Rudy (Johnny Crawford), and his best friend Eddie (Charles Grant, another show-stopper); to the emerging fighter being trained by Joe Martin (Jared Mack); to the Olympic champion; to the activist.

Ellis (and Clay) triumphant. Photo: Owen Carey

This is the true-life coming-of-age tale you are expecting, of course: Yes, this boy who comes from such humble beginnings that his dad saved up for eight months to get him a bike, wins the Olympics. Yes, he grows up to become the greatest boxer of all time. But there’s much more to it. This isn’t a story about the making of a boxer so much as it is about the making of an activist. Spurred mostly be Eddie, Ellis’s Cassius grows from the cautious kid scared of the neighborhood bully, Corky (Gerrin Mitchell, hilarious and memorable in the role), to the man who will fight for himself and for those who cannot fight for themselves.

This is a history lesson about the civil rights era for today’s youth, who, especially in Portland, might be a bit sheltered or ignorant on topics of race, segregation, and discrimination. My own 5-year-old was troubled by the characters learning of and explaining the death of Emmett Till – as she should be. This is a production that will stimulate important conversations we should be having with our children: about history, racism, and privilege.

But this is also the vehicle for a truly great star performance in the title role, and Ellis delivers across the board: from his punches , jabs, and footwork to his swagger. Not many people can pull off lines like, “I don’t gotta act like I’m better. I AM better!” and make you both believe him and love him anyway. Ali could do that. So can La’Tevin Alexander Ellis.

His performance is helped by that supporting cast, with not a weak performance among them; a surprisingly simple set – just a boxing ring that becomes everything it needs to – by scenic designer Tal Sanders; and deft direction from co-directors Stan Foote (OCT’s artistic director) and Jerry Foster. The fight scenes also demonstrate the skill of boxing choreographer Damaris Webb (who also plays Cassius’s mother, Odessa).

In the relatively small space of the Winningstad Theatre, it all comes together for a production that’s larger than life – just like its star, and the one he’s portraying.

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Oregon Children’s Theatre’s And in This Corner: Cassius Clay continues through March 25 in the Dolores Winningstad Theatre of Portland’5 Centers for the Arts. Ticket and schedule information here.

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Read Bobby Bermea’s ArtsWatch profile, And In This Corner … La’Tevin Alexander Ellis.

And In This Corner … La’Tevin Alexander Ellis

At Oregon Children's Theatre, the actor takes a swing at playing the great Cassius Clay on the way to becoming the greater Muhammad Ali

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’.”

LaTevin Alexander Ellis, fists first. Photo: Owen Carey

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.

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