Review: FETCH CLAY, MAKE MAN Unmasks Two Racial Icons

A little more than forty years ago, Harold Prince saw a photo of film icon Gloria Swanson posing dramatically in the rubble of what was once the Roxy Theater and it struck him that somewhere in that image was a musical. And it turned out to be quite a musical... Follies.

In the summer of 2005, playwright Will Power saw a 1965 photo of World Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali in a press conference accompanied by controversial film icon Stepin Fetchit and immediately thought, "That's a play!"

And indeed it's quite a play. After an initial 2010 production at Princeton's McCarter Theatre Center, Power's tense, funny and provocative Fetch Clay, Make Man arrives at the New York Theatre Workshop in a thrilling production directed Des McAnuff, featuring an excellent ensemble of crackling performances.

It's two days before the new champ - who won his title as Cassius Clay and then converted to the Nation of Islam, changing his name to Muhammad Ali - is scheduled to defend his title against the man he won it from, Sonny Liston. The "Black Muslims," as they were frequently referred to, were looked on as a radical hate group by both whites and blacks in America and, as presented by the playwright, Ali and his colleagues saw the upcoming contest as a chance to earn respect for their separatist movement.

And if there was ever an unlikely visitor to Ali's training camp at this time, it was actor Lincoln Perry, better known by his screen name, Stepin Fetchit. A gifted physical clown with a sly sense for subversive comedy, Fetchit was the first actor of his race deemed worthy of a screen credit. His widespread popularity during the 1930s made him a millionaire and helped open doors for other black performers to follow. He probably would be regarded as one of the great pioneers of the screen if it weren't for the fact that his comical stage persona was that of a lazy, shuffling, dim-witted stereotype.

To Fetchit, and those who saw his angle, his character was a sly fellow who took advantage of the low expectations of his white bosses. In one scene, Power has Ali's wife, Sonji, express how much her father enjoyed his movies, especially in scenes where he acted lazy so he didn't have to do the white man's dirty work, but still get paid for it.

"All the way through the Depression you kept my daddy laughing," she says with sincere appreciation.

But to the 23-year-old Ali, and most other black men of his time, Stepin Fetchit was an embarrassment and by 1965 he was broke, unemployable as an actor and a symbol of black stereotypes perpetuated to entertain racist whites.

But Fetchit was an acquaintance of a man who truly was seen as pioneer for racial equality, Jack Johnson, the world's first black heavyweight champ. Like Ali, Johnson's very existence as champion infuriated whites and like Ali, he often fought bouts fully aware that there could be someone in the crowd willing to shoot him. ("What about Kennedy? He had the Secret Service and they still couldn't protect him. They couldn't protect the president so what chance does a black man have? Especially one as pretty as me.")

It's the chance to gain some insight into the mind of Johnson that inspires Ali to invite Fetchit to his heavily guarded gym, especially to inquire about his legendary Anvil Punch, said to be a move so swift it could knock out an opponent without even being seen. (Those aware of the controversial outcome of the 2nd Ali/Liston fight will get the connection.)

The characters spar and maneuver inside designer Riccardo Hernandez's squared set that resembles a rope-less boxing ring, as Power effectively uses this historic meeting to address the emotions of men who live by the public's perception of who they are.

"When you wear the mask on for so long," laments Fetchit, "you can't take it off."

K. Todd Freeman offers an immensely memorable performance as Fetchit, opening the play with a taste of the man's screen persona in his heyday ("I don't know anybody'll mind if I stay over here and take a nap. I'm just so tired from sleepin'... I don't think the boss'll have to know... ") performed with the kind of conspiratorial confidence that tells us we're to take the routine on his own terms. When he arrives at the Ali camp he is a shy and broken man accustomed to being looked at with scorn by people of his own race, but when it becomes apparent that the youngster intends to use him without acknowledging the sacrifices he made for black men like him, Freeman's buildup of Fetchit's angry demand for respect is thrilling to experience.

In flashback scenes, we see Fetchit as a smart and savvy negotiator dealing with studio boss William Fox, excellently played by Richard Masur as a hefty, cigar-chomping mogul. It's interesting to see how Fox and Fetchit treat each other cordially, but when Fetchit senses animosity from his fellow black men at Ali's gym, he shifts into a real-life version of his film character as though they have become the new boss men.

Ray Fisher nails the melodic voice, graceful gait and over-the-top showmanship of Muhammad Ali and the playwright gives him plenty of chances to recite his trademark poetry. But Ali is still a young man at this point and though he may be king of the boxing world, Fisher keeps us aware that under his mask there's still a confused fellow feeling unprepared to make some very big decisions.

It's his wife, Sonji, who is the decisive one in the relationship and Nikki M. James plays her like a dynamo. Initially appearing in traditional Muslim coverings, a conversation with Fetchit convinces her to go back to the sexy, fashionable dresses she prefers, refusing to change herself for the sake of her husband's cause.

John Earl Jelks supplies a healthy dose of tension and danger as Brother Rashid, a former pimp who has converted to Islam and serves as Ali's bodyguard. He detests Fetchit and believes any association with him will not only harm the boxer but, more importantly, harm the movement.

Being a play about two men who knew value of keeping the public entertained, Fetch Clay, Make Man is a frequently funny, enjoyable piece that strikes hard when its themes surface. In the words of The Greatest, the evening floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: K. Todd Freeman; Bottom: Nikki M. James, K. Todd Freeman, Ray Fisher and John Earl Jelks.

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