Shaneeka Harrell storms out of the shadows with her head lowered and hidden in a white hoodie. Performing as Muhammad Ali in her one-woman show, From the Corner of Cassius Clay, Harrell whips around her jump rope and skips over it at a steadily increasing pace. Framed by two screens playing footage of Ali, she sits on a stool, stretches, and does a sort of painful-looking ballet move or two. She talks about how pretty she is and how we, the audience, can't keep up with her. She shadowboxes and insults us as though we are her opponent: "I'm gonna hit you so hard, God gonna look at you and say, 'That ain't mine!'"
When Harrell removes her hoodie on stage, her body exudes power. From the Corner of Cassius Clay, which debuted earlier this month at the Goldman Warehouse as part of the O, Miami Poetry Festival, ends with a spoken word poem about Clay by Miami poet Denise Frohman: "Every day is 15 rounds with an opponent you cannot see."
Harrell is a native of Carol City, a suburban, crime-ridden area of Miami-Dade county. She danced and played basketball in Miami, before moving to New York to dance with Urban Bush Woman and pursue an apprenticeship under Bill T. Jones, a leading choreographer and director of post-modern dance. After returning to Miami, Harrell was inspired by the documentary Muhammad Ali: Made in Miami to create her one-woman show with director Teo Castellanos.
Harrell's performance as Cassius Clay centers on the period Clay spent training on Miami Beach. I spoke with Harrell about her intense physical preparation for the show, Clay's work as an activist and poet, and the inspiration she draws from Tupac.
VICE: Why did you choose to write a play about Muhammad Ali?
Shaneeka Harrell: All I knew about Muhammad Ali was that I saw him on T-shirts on 125th Street in Harlem, next to Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. I didn't know why. I didn't know crap about Muhammad Ali's life and I was born here [in Miami].
I like to work when I have a question. The answer brings on more questions. The stories that people have about Ali being here… I have a story of my pops meeting [Ali] at an IHOP. Everybody older than 60, if they lived in Miami proper, they have something to say about [Ali's time here]. I unlocked a door, and I didn't know what was behind it. It was like I opened a time capsule.
"Ali wanted to usher in humanity. Ali fought, and not just in the ring." —Shaneeka Harrell
I didn't know the richness of Miami black history. We were boycotting and doing sit-ins at restaurants before they were doing that in Alabama. I didn't know how rich and progressive our town was. It was called Colored Town. There was something very important for me to say about [Ali] being in Miami before he blew up. It's like everyone wants to know what happened the night before Martin Luther King got shot. I wanted to talk about this young man living in this vibrant city. I would love to take this [show] to a youth center in our town. These kids need to know about what you can do it Miami.
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Did you train in boxing to prepare for the show?
I actually did, bro. It was the hardest thing I've done in my entire life. I could've come at it from a theater or dancing way, researched the character and blah blah blah. But I wanted to know how it felt. There's something about the training, the rhythm and repetition, that was really interesting. Everyone's heard the story that Muhammad Ali came over here to Liberty City to train. He ran 6 miles each day on the 395 Causeway and ran forwards one way and backwards the other. I wanted to run to know what that felt like. I wanted to jump rope.
When I got to the gym, that's when shit got real. Because there's a style and a form, just like there's a form to dancing. There's something beautiful about boxing. There are all these different things to do with your body, and it's amazing to see how Muhammad Ali did none of it. So I had to do orthodox boxing training, and then unlearn that.
Is the text of the show, aside from the poem at the end, directly taken from Ali's own words?
I tried to keep it as close to Ali's words as possible. He's a poet. I wanted his words. I feel like there's a correlation between his fight and my fight. This is a 20 year old man who's saying, "Don't look at me as a fighter, but as an artist."
In your show, you compare Ali with Tupac. Why?
They're both [poets and] artists at the forefront [of their fields]. If you're in the forefront of anything, you can use that for good or not good. Ali wanted to usher in humanity. Ali fought, and not just in the ring. If you have a position, use it. Speak the truth, even when it shakes.
While the current run of "From the Corner of Cassius Clay" is complete, Harrell plans to perform the show again in the future. Find out more about her work on her website and follow Jonathan Peltz on Twitter.