Stage One Family Theatre and Jefferson County Public Schools are partnering to bring every JCPS middle school student to the upcoming world premiere of “And In This Corner … Cassius Clay,” a new play commissioned by Stage One about Muhammad Ali’s youth.
“The play that we are announcing this morning is dedicated to presenting his life from ages 12-18, when he goes onto the world stage and comes back with a gold medal, and starts to make choices about what he will do with the rest of his life,” said Stage One artistic director Peter Holloway at a press conference at the Muhammad Ali Center Thursday morning.
Written by Idris Goodwin, “And In This Corner … Cassius Clay” opens with a reception on Friday, January 17, 2015, on Ali’s 73rd birthday, and a public matinee on Monday, January 19, 2015 – Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Student matinees open the next day and run through February 14. During the run, students will have a dual field trip, experiencing both the play and a visit to the Ali Center.
More than 25,000 area students are expected to be served by the production and museum visit, which will be underwritten by a scholarship pool for low-income schools in development by JCPS and Stage One.
“If we want to have another great generation of creative thinkers and problem solvers in this community, you want to expose them to the arts,” said Holloway.
Approximately 60,000 JCPS students attend Stage One productions every year, making the school system Stage One’s biggest single client. The primary audience for “And In This Corner … Cassius Clay” are grades 6-8, but the play is suitable for students as young as fourth grade and up.
“Our students, especially our middle school students, are working to define their identities and decide what kind of people they want to be. Immersing themselves in the legacy of Muhammad Ali might help them find the strength and inspiration to achieve their full potential,” said JCPS superintendent Donna Hargens.
Hargens also cited studies that emphasize arts-rich experiences like attending theater productions and museums as a gateway to higher academic achievement.
“In addition, the arts teach empathy and build connections between children and the world,” she said. “In seeking to improve the success of every child it is clear that our investment in the arts is an investment in the future of our community.”
With this project, playwright Goodwin returns to Louisville after two recent Humana Festival of New American Plays projects, including the 2012 world premiere of his full-length hip hop coming-of-age play “How We Got On.”
“The coming-of-age question is one that I go back to in my writing. When Peter came to me with this concept I literally just jumped out of my seat and ran around the house doing Ali impressions,” said Goodwin. “This is one of those projects you get to work on that you would pay someone to let you do, because it’s truly larger than myself.”
Goodwin says Ali’s history is still relevant to today’s youth, and he hopes that the story will inspire and empower young people.
“He saw the future. He had vision. When I go back and listen to his interviews, especially when he was a young man and going through the Clay-Ali transition, the things he was talking about then, as far as personal freedom, as far as freedom for black people, and you think about everything going on now, currently, it’s got a scary resonance and you begin to wonder how much has changed, and you see the need for more Alis,” he said.
The young Cassius Clay will be portrayed by Chicago-based actor Justin Cornwell, who just happened to grow up in Louisville. He’s a graduate of Eastern High School, and he served on the Ali Center teen council in 2007.
“It’s such an honor for me. It’s just one of those iconic figures that, being from Louisville you grow up hearing about, you know everything about his story,” said Cornwell.