Deon Releford-Lee is training this month for the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte’s upcoming production of “And In This Corner … Cassius Clay.”
After smaller roles in “A Year with Frog and Toad,” “Go, Dog. Go” and “Mary Poppins,” Releford-Lee takes center stage as the man who would become the iconic Muhammad Ali.
Releford-Lee took time to answer some questions about the upcoming performance. The interview has been edited for space.
Q: How did you prepare for the role of Cassius Clay?
A: I’ve been watching a lot of interviews and footage of him just speaking. I’m not looking to be an imitator or an impersonator, but I have been trying to pick up his cadence and the rhythm of his speech. If you listen to him speak, it’s almost as if he’s singing.
I’ve been watching a bunch of footage of him and brushing up on my boxing knowledge.
We started rehearsing on the 2nd, so it’s nice to be in the room with everyone.
Q: How much work went into nailing Ali’s distinct accent?
A: Luckily, the play is written in the Louisville vernacular, so it’s not too hard to say those words.
The combination of those words is a little complicated. For example, I don’t use “just” or “actually” a lot in my vocabulary but it’s written into the play. It’s written so well that you just kind of fall into it.
I’ve been working on picking up a cadence and falling into a pattern.
Q: Is this your most physically demanding role?
A: No. I am a concert dancer, so I’ve danced with big modern dance companies.
I won’t say (boxing is) a breeze. I just think it’s different, because my background is dance. I think being a dancer has helped me adapt and pick up the style of movement and how to hold my body, because I’m hyper aware of that type of stuff.
Q: When you get a role that’s been depicted a few times in Hollywood, do you pay attention to those or ignore them?
A: Typically, I don’t watch the Hollywood stuff, because I don’t want that to influence what I’m doing. But I will say with this show in particular, I didn’t really care. I watched “Ali” and the documentary that he started.
I watched stuff like that because I’m not playing Muhammad Ali. I’m playing Cassius Clay. And that’s a very different character.
He had been through a lot. I don’t want to give anything away about the show, but there is a historical thing that really molded him into who he was. My idea was to learn who is, so I could tell the story of who he was and how he became Muhammad Ali.
The audience will get to see when Muhammad Ali started to develop.
Q: What’s the biggest takeaway from the production?
A: Beyond learning about Cassius Clay and who he was, it’s full of history and things that African-Americans had to go through and the unwritten rules they had to go by just to survive every day.
It’s jam-packed with so much culture. Some of it is really heavy as far as the history, but another reason to come is there is so much joy and humor written into it, as well. There’s just something for everyone.
It’s ironic because it’s done in February, which is Black History Month, but anyone can go and pick up something. I think anyone can relate to finding themselves or finding their thing and excelling at it.