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Scenes of Muhammad Ali’s early life echo reality of racism today in Metro Theater Company production

Julia Flood, the artistic director of Metro Theater Company, and Trigney Morgan, who plays Cassius Clay in “And In This Corner…Cassius Clay.”
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Julia Flood, the artistic director of Metro Theater Company, and Trigney Morgan, who plays Cassius Clay in “And In This Corner…Cassius Clay.” ";s:3:

Picture this moment: A Louisville mother and her two sons are huddled in a hug after hearing the news about the murder of Emmett Till. There are tough questions about why and no clear answers to be had.

It was a pivotal moment in the young life of Cassius Clay, who would later become the most famous man in the world under the name Muhammad Ali. At that time, Clay was not yet a World Champion Boxer and was just finding his way to navigate the Jim Crow South when Till was lynched. Clay was the same age as Till, both in eighth grade and at the tender age of 14.

Trigney Morgan, who plays Cassius Clay in Metro Theater Company’s production of “And In This Corner…Cassius Clay” said that pivotal moment was one that got him thinking.

“A lot of families probably had to do this, like really had to sit with their children and explain racism is a real thing, don’t look at these white folk while you’re walking down the street, keep your head down, there’s going to be black and white places only, that’s just the way it is, there’s nothing we can do about it,” Morgan said on Friday’s “St. Louis on the Air.”  “It’s really sad that that really happened, kids had to be really raised in that way.”

For Julia Flood, artistic director of Metro Theater Company, moments like these that appear in Idris Goodwin’s play gave her chills when she first read it less than a year ago. It is the first production of the play outside of Louisville.

“The scene where his mother hugs [Cassius] and his younger brother and says ‘I’m not going to let anything happen to you,’ I think that scene is happening in our community too,” Flood said, referring to talks she’s had with students who’ve come to see the show and have drawn connections to events that unfolded in Ferguson following the police shooting death of Michael Brown.

“The young people who see it, they get that this is the Civil Rights movement,” Flood said. “They get this connects to their community now but it leaves them inspired and energized and like they want to make connection to make the place they live a better place.”

“This [play] shows them that this has been going on a long time,” Morgan said.  “A lot of things have changed and some things haven’t.”

While the play has been performed for school-aged children during the course of the past week, it opens to the public on Feb. 12 at the Missouri History Museum. The story tracks Cassius Clay from age 11, when he is introduced to boxing by white police officer Joe Martin, through age 22 when he returns from the Rome Olympics to a Louisville, where he still can’t eat in “white-only” diners.

Morgan had to learn the rules and methods of boxing for the part, which he said made the play even more of a physical challenge than a psychological challenge. Metro Theater Company called in fight choreographer Drew Frasier to help as well as “St. Louis All City Boxing,” which trains young boxers much in the way Clay was trained from age 8 upward.

“It puts a bit of pressure on me because these are big shoes to fill,” said Morgan. “But depicting his early stage is a really great opportunity. A lot of people know about him going to the Olympics and being drafted into the Vietnam War, that’s the earliest stage they know of Muhammad Ali. To know where he started his career and where he got his inspiration to box and about Joe Martin and his family and about his community and how that affected him…it’s a story a lot of people don’t know.”

Related Event

What: Metro Theater Company Presents Idris Goodwin's “And In This Corner…Cassius Clay"
When: February 12 - 28, 2016
Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.
Sundays at 2:00 p.m.
Where: Missouri History Museum, 5700 Lindell Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63112
More information.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards,Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.

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