Cassius Clay bragged about being a poet. In From the Corner of Cassius Clay, Shaneeka Harrell shows us what that means. Harrell, playing Clay, jumps rope, dances, recites Clay’s words and verse, and knocks herself out to the score of DJ Le Spam as photos, fights, and interview clips, designed by Josieu Jean, are projected onto the walls behind her.
The performance offers a glimpse into Clay’s world and mindset when he lived in Miami: just before he knocked out Sonny Liston at the Miami Convention Center to become the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, and, equally important, just before he renamed himself Muhammad Ali. During last night’s packed-house performance at the Lightbox, the audience sat close, making up two sides of the ring in which Harrell performed—which was lucky for us, because Harrell is (forgive me) a genuine knockout. Muscular, loud, glistening with sweat, she fills the room. “Ain’t I pretty?!” she shouted.
The “TITLE” on her shorts heaving with her breath, Harrell (as Clay) shouted at the audience, “Who’s the greatest?” and we shouted back, “Cassius Clay!” During a mock interview, the audience asked pre-written questions about Clay’s upcoming battle with Liston. Did he really think he could win? “If you like to lose your money, be a fool and bet on Sonny! HA!” Has he ever been in love? “Not with anybody else! HA!”
Harrell closed the performance by combining Clay’s quips and boasts into the long poem they add up to. She demonstrated how, at the base of a tradition of equal rights activists like Angela Davis and poets like Amiri Baraka, is Cassius Clay, who knew what he was doing, and refused to shut up.