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Children's Theatre Deals With the 'N' Word and Other Big Questions 

'The Greatest' grows Up

Scene from And in This Corner: Cassius Clay, directed by Aaron Cabell.

Scene from And in This Corner: Cassius Clay, directed by Aaron Cabell.

Adam Burke came to Charlotte because of his passion for youth theater and education. After a stint as founding artistic director of Chicago Theatre for Young Audiences, he took a five-year detour into academia at a San Antonio university. When the artistic director position at Children's Theatre of Charlotte came open, the ImaginOn theater facilities and the strong link with the CharMeck Library system became irresistible lures for Burke.

He took over at ImaginOn at the start of the 2013-14 season, concentrating his stage directing efforts on big new works such as Ella's Big Chance: A Jazz Age Cinderella, and richly entertaining extravaganzas like The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.

Now in his fifth season overseeing Children's Theatre's programming, Burke knows better than ever that he's speaking to the community as well as its children, a community that is waking up to its true image in the mirror after years of blind complacency.

click to enlarge Adam Burke
  • Adam Burke

Opening this week, And in This Corner: Cassius Clay, directed by Aaron Cabell, is the second biographical study of its kind to play at ImaginOn in the past three years. Jackie & Me, about baseball great Jackie Robinson, opened in February 2015. We sat down with Burke to have him reflect on the challenges of presenting meaningful, impactful plays in our current political and social climate.

Creative Loafing: Children's Theatre presented Jackie & Me about three years ago, not long after And in This Corner: Cassius Clay premiered in Louisville, Kentucky, Muhammad Ali's hometown. Was there discussion at that time about following up Jackie with Cassius?

Adam Burke: We did not specifically intend to follow Jackie & Me with another piece about a pioneering black athlete. I was aware of this play being developed in Louisville when it was happening and was hoping that it would end up being a strong script that we could eventually produce.

And in This Corner: Cassius Clay asks some big questions about the world that Cassius Clay lived in during the 1950s and 1960s — and equally about the world that we live in today.

How confident are you that theater-goers will accept hearing the N-word spoken in Cassius Clay?

We live in a very different world today than we did when we produced Jackie & Me three years ago. Both plays, Jackie & Me as well as And in This Corner: Cassius Clay, contain the N-word as written by the playwrights. Three years ago we proactively informed every school that intended to bring students that the playwright had included the word in the script. We did the same this season with And in This Corner: Cassius Clay.

Three years ago, we didn't have any schools withdraw from coming to see the show due to the use of the N-word by the playwright. To date, this season, we've had several.

We, as parents, as teachers, and as a community, can't be afraid to bring students to a play that deals with civil rights issues because of the use of the N-word. It's a painful word to hear, and we abhor its use in everyday life, but pretending it doesn't exist won't help make anything better.

Does Idris Goodwin's script filter out Cassius Clay's often brash, boastful and divisive attributes in order to present the man who would later become Muhammad Ali, "The Greatest," as a role model?

In this play, Cassius Clay absolutely is a role model. This is a play about a young African-American boy who is learning some truths about the racism that exists in this community. He speaks his mind openly and confidently and asks big questions. I hope this play inspires all of our young audience members to live with their eyes wide open and to question everything.

In casting the lead role, how locked in were you to Clay/Ali's signature physical traits? Were you able to find such an actor in Charlotte's talent pool, or were you forced to reach out regionally or nationwide?

Ideally, we wanted someone who looked a lot like Cassius Clay and had the ability to capture the spirit of the man. The director found an actor, Deon Releford-Lee, at our season auditions who he strongly felt could play the role. The directors at Children's Theatre of Charlotte cast their own shows whenever possible.

Considering how important Children's Theatre's voice is in this city, do you feel a certain obligation to continue this series of historical dramas?

It is important that Children's Theatre continues to support our community and tell stories that reflect our social, cultural and political climate. We have a lot of irons in the fire, so to speak, that we believe speak to our young audience and the world in which they live.

We are currently deeply invested in The Kindness Project, where we've committed to commission, create and produce three new plays based on books that all speak to themes of kindness. [The first play in the Kindness Project, Last Stop on Market Street, opens during the 2018-19 season.] They each, in their own way, discuss the difference between feeling sympathy or empathy and committing an act of kindness.

You can't feel kind, you have to actually do something in order to be kind.

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