Deon Releford-Lee as Cassius Clay

Most days Deon Releford-Lee’s work starts as early as 5 a.m., looking at eager faces on his computer screen. His part-time day job is teaching English to Chinese children online. His schedule is flexible and he enjoys helping children across the big pond to learn his language.

By mid-morning he’s getting into character at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte. Starting on February 2nd, Deon will play the title character, Cassius Clay, in the upcoming performance of “And In This Corner: Cassius Clay, The Making of Muhammad Ali”. The play takes a quick look at the talented boxer before he was a household name.

This isn’t the first time the 24 year old West Philadelphia native has claimed a lead role in a theater production. Just recently, he was cast as Romeo in the Shakespeare favorite, “Romeo and Juliet”, and prior to that, played one of the three musketeers. He’s also no stranger to Children’s Theatre of Charlotte. This season he has already played in “Go, Dog, Go!” and in “Mary Poppins” alongside Janetta Jackson.

With his roles in children’s theater, it’s evident that Deon has an affinity for the little ones, especially those who could view him as a role model. Growing up, he traveled the world with his military family but didn’t see many who were in the shoes he one day wanted to fill, so recently the tables were turned and he loved every minute of it.

“Recently Cam Newton’s Foundation came in during rehearsal and we had the opportunity to talk to the kids – and they asked us why we did this. I told them that one of the biggest reasons is for representation. I think it’s really important for people of color to be seen in this light so that kids who look like them will know they can do anything.”

When Deon was around the same age as the children he spoke to, he actually wanted to be a cryptozoologist (the study of extinct animals or animals from folklore such as big foot) but later realized that wasn’t a real career. At 17, he found dance, and his life was forever changed. During that time, his family had settled in Fayetteville, NC where he attended Fayetteville State University, majoring in theater and dance. Coming from a background involving physical movement, Deon had no problem preparing for the role of Muhammad Ali and has since taken up boxing as a personal hobby.

“I actually didn’t know his name was Cassius Clay until I was an adult because in school we only learned about Muhammad Ali – and those are two very different areas of his life. So, I knew who he was but I didn’t know who he was, if that makes sense.”

It makes perfect sense. Just as Deon has grown and matured over the years, Cassius Clay, turned Muhammad Ali, did also. That’s why the prized fighter had such profound thoughts and feelings that contributed to his choice to study the Islamic faith and become a Muslim. During those years, life in the 1940’s were difficult for African Americans and he became an advocate of equality and a pioneer in civil rights as his faith grew.

When asked about preparing for this iconic role, Deon mentioned purposefully not reading much about previous performances of a production that he’ll star in, simply so he can self-identify and make the role his own. But this one was a little different. He asked questions and actually did research to fully get to know the legacy. While familiarizing himself with the part, Deon remembers a brief story told to him by his director.

“There was a reporter that came to his (Muhammad Ali’s) home to do a story about him, and during the interview, Muhammad Ali, who is this big burly man, starts to tickle him. These two grown men were down on the floor wrestling with each other. And that little pocket of joy is really what sparked my interest the most.”

Many people know about the activist, the athlete, and the arrogance, as well as personal battles with the government regarding his refusal to be drafted during the Vietnam War, but few know how he arrived there. This play digs deep into his childhood and sheds light on the catalyst.

I asked Deon what was the one thing he wanted the community to know about this performance. He paused before answering. “Just come see it. It’s a beautiful story. It’s not just about an African American boxer, it’s about a little boy who’s trying to find his way while juggling all these different things.”

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