Can you imagine being denied service at an establishment because of your skin color? What if you couldn’t simply drink a sip of water out of the nearest fountain or walk on a certain side of the street? During the 1940’s, Cassius Clay, along with his friends and family, faced these inequities firsthand as a boy growing up in Louisville, Kentucky.

Children’s Theatre of Charlotte introduces the disheartening era we know as Jim Crow, but wrapped the present in a familiar bow – Cassius Clay, Jr., who would one day become Muhammad Ali. In an auditorium filled with impressionable children and their curious parents, Charlotte was hit with ugly truths about America that, unfortunately, are still relevant today.

Writer Idris Goodwin, best known for his first play, “How We Got On”, thought to display his words in a rhyming fashion, possibly to appeal to young children, or to perhaps intertwine his love for poetry and spoken word with playwriting. Either way, it’s engaging and easy on the ears. Deon Releford-Lee plays the young boxer starting at age 12, through adolescence just as he embarks on this new journey that shapes the rest of his life. Releford-Lee delivers his lines with conviction, having had his own experience with racism, indirectly.

“I was acting in a play and the role I was playing is traditionally white. I was the only Black actor in the cast and I guess my presence was unexpected. I later found out that the theater company received threats because I was there.”

Feeling threatened was all too common as Cassius, his younger brother, Rudy (Ian Fermy), and his resistant buddy, Eddie (Rahsheem Shabazz), shuddered in fear each time a police officer neared. His parents, Cash (Traven Harrington) and Odessa (Ericka Ross) were normal, protective parents who only wanted the best for their ambitious son. During those years, there wasn’t much for a Black child to aspire to be in the eyes of the majority. But a chance run-in with a friendly cop, Joe Martin (Kevin Shimko), changed Cassius’ trajectory with an invitation to his gym, after an infuriated Cassius promised to pummel whomever had stolen his brand new red bicycle.

The young boy full of rage trained relentlessly to take down a thief but eventually learned that he would not only battle opponents in the ring, but an entire country that didn’t see him as a human being, only a n—–r. Though it was indeed present, Goodwin hid the n-word between other words where it was barely audible. It was even less dramatic because it was spoken by Eddie, Cassius’s friend instead of a perpetrator. If you sneeze, you’ll miss it.

The one hour performance quickly moves through important happenings in the Clay family but  most importantly, the moments that shape Cassius into a world-class Olympic fighter. We don’t get to witness when he decided to become Muhammad Ali but the performance laid the groundwork and allows us to imagine what may have swayed his decision.

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