Fetch Clay, Make Man
Red plush velvet theatre seats surround a sterile steel and white-hot glass set; a black door hangs at the back of the stage. A trumpet sounds: it’s show time. The scene: Lewiston, Maine 1965. As cocky 23-year-old pugilist Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., known around the world as Muhammad Ali, prepares for a rematch with the iron fist wielding Sonny Liston-we see something "The Greatest" rarely showed in public: Fear.
Guiding his muse, he enlists the services of screen icon Lincoln Perry, the universally panned Stepin Fetchit, beseeching the actor to reveal the enigma of black boxing legend Jack Johnson, Fetchit’s amigo of many moons. An unlikely friendship is born when Fetchit agrees to come on as Ali’s ’secret strategist.’ Will Power’s "Fetch Clay, Make Man," the latest K.O. from the life-altering New York Theatre Workshop, is a sparring match of chessboard wit, tightrope gravitas and biting humor.
In one corner: big-time Hollywood thespian Stepin Fetchit (played with stinging angst by Tony-nominated actor K. Todd Freeman), who became a millionaire by performing as a subversive stereotype of a lazy oaf who got off on his own servility. In the other: Muhammad Ali (played superbly by Ray Fisher), sucker punch slugging extraordinaire and Afrocentric braggadocio poet.
When the puzzled Fetchit enters Ali’s dressing room, the champion prizefighter threatens to pound the actor to a pulp for the public degradation of their race before revealing the intentions to be a ruse. Ali’s desire to unlock the mysteries of the Galveston Giant’s enigma with the down-in-the-dumps actor becomes a catalyst of the Civil Rights movement, without necessarily intending it, when Ali extends his hand and accepts Fetchit as part of his entourage.
Some may have seen this as black America accepting Fetchit’s past as part of its history, while others like the militant Nation Of Islam go-to man Brother Rashid (played sinisterly by the Tony-nominated John Earl Jelks) aren’t so easy to let it go. As the play develops, Rashid -- a figure of the controversial religious movement led at the time by Elijah Muhammad -- acts more so as a detainer; constricting any and all that oppose The Nation, especially Fetchit who is a prisoner of his own mind.
Flashbacks bob and weave between the present and Hollywood’s Golden Age. Motion picture pioneer William Fox of Fox Studios, a Hungarian immigrant who rose to be a film industry tycoon (played spot-on by Richard Masur), worships Fetchit’s comedic genius, but denies him opportunities to expand his range and play more complex roles. This includes sharing an article in which an eloquent Fetchit praises more "highbrow" art forms such as classical music, which of course, is "bad for business."
His back against the wall, his lavish requests of a larger salary, a white chauffeur and valuable studio memento, are simply mud to mask his wounded ego. "I snuck in the back door, so you could walk in the front," Fetchit states later in the piece to Ali with bitter anguish.
In this, Ali and Fetchit are not unlike one another. Ali, hailed the ’Sportsman of the Century’, is not the charismatic, loudmouth champ in front of the cameras. At the epicenter of a gossip mill is the rumor that he may be the target of attack in the aftermath of the assassination of Malcolm X, and on top of that, a startling revelation about his new wife begins to take its toll on Muhammad. Like Samson, he feels weak. He needs Jack Johnson’s secret weapon, even it means entertaining the idea of appearing alongside Fetchit in a John Ford movie for his comeback:
"What would my fans say if they go to the movies and see me, The Greatest of all-time, gettin’ beat up by some cowboy? I mean I wouldn’t mind if I lost to the Mummy or something like that. If I gotta get knocked out, I’d rather lose to a supernatural brother rather than a raggedy old cowboy," Ali says in a hilarious bit.
The enigma: The "anchor" punch. As scandalous as Ali’s first win against Liston, the now iconic rematch is very controversial. When Ali’s fist connected with Liston’s face, the press dubbed the jab the "phantom punch" because the naked eye did not see it. It was lights out for Liston and the fight lasted all of two minutes. But critics still can’t seem to speculate what happened.
Did Liston take a dive to the ring floor on purpose to pay off debts? Did the Nation of Islam, the play’s alleged antagonist threaten Liston’s life and limb? Or was Ali’s cross hook the source of something else? Despite stop-motion, people still believe otherwise. Will Power doesn’t exactly mingle with that particular controversy in this piece, and its probably best without it. The scandal is the relationship between these complicated icons.
With powerhouse performances by Tony-winning Nikki M. James as Sonji Clay, a former cocktail waitress with a checkered past and the first of Ali’s four wives, James breathes soul into the only female character among the throngs of men. A self-made, smart whip of a woman with tons of sass, she is the greatest good a young Muhammad has. But when the colorful freethinker objects to certain dress customs of God-fearing Muslim women, the marriage hits the rocks. Packed with the kick of cayenne pepper, Sonji’s battle of gender and race as a black woman in a white woman’s world also encapsulates the problems her male peers are having: playing the part.
Everyone is playing a part and sick of it: Whether it’s the soft shoeing, spirit finger waving, Orpheum circuit sambo Stepin Fetchit trying to finagle the industry to his making; Whether it’s the hyper-masculine, attention-starved heavyweight turned Civil Rights soapbox longing for a truth he is afraid to hear; Whether it’s the former pimp now white-knuckled yes man unleashing his wrath on his wife and daughters while saving face as a Good Shepherd. Everyone.
Inspired by a photo of paradoxes that brought the symbols of black power and black shame together at a ’60s press conference, the sleek production by Olivier and Tony-winning director Des McAnuff is a must-see for any theatregoer. With a sparring cage of a set by designer Riccardo Hernandez,, Will Power’s play is a fatal blow you’ll want to return to again and again.