Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Clay), world heavyweight boxing champion, remains decades after his prime the embodiment of black pride, strength, and accomplishment. Stepin Fetchit (born Lincoln Perry), the first black movie star, has become an embarrassment to many, his career based on a cruel comic stereotype. But at a time when he was nearing the peak of his fame, Ali befriended Fetchit, who by then had faded into obscurity.
Playwright and performer Will Power stumbled upon an old photograph of the two before an Ali heavyweight fight, with Ali calling Fetchit his “secret strategist.” Their friendship inspired Power to write “Fetch Clay, Make Man,” which is now running through October 13 at the New York Theatre Workshop, a production that is well-designed, wonderfully acted and at times as puzzling as its title.
The play takes place largely in 1965 in Lewiston, Maine, right before Ali’s rematch with Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title. By then a member of the Nation of Islam, Ali (Ray Fisher) has asked Brother Rashid (John Earl Jelks), who has been assigned to be his aide, to fetch Fetchit (K. Todd Freeman). When Fetchit, age 63, arrives, the 23-year-old Ali calls him a “traitor to our race” and, announcing that “it’s time for payback brother,” he puts up his formidable fists, as if to give Fetchit a whupping. The older man cowers. The younger man laughs; he was just joking — the famous Ali clowning. (Power has Ali at one point recite a fun, boastful poem very much like Ali’s own “float like a butterfly/sting like a bee” poetry)
The real reason for the summons: Step was a friend of Jack Johnson, the first African-American to become world heavyweight boxing champion, and Ali wants Step to reveal his secrets. One secret Step reveals: As part of his training for a fight, Johnson role-played as both winner and as loser so that he could feel he was in control no matter what happened.
It is a potentially resonant moment. Stepin Fetchit, who through his clowning became rich and famous and then a pariah, giving instructions on winning and losing to Muhammad Ali, who was rich and famous, and for a time a pariah because of his conversion to Islam and his refusal to be inducted into the military.
It is interesting to contemplate the parallels, intriguing to hear the arguments Step makes for being proud of his career. The play is threaded with flashbacks to Step’s meetings with movie studio head William Fox, where he shrewdly negotiates a high salary and movie star perks in exchange for continuing his laziest man in the world character.
But it’s as if the playwright doesn’t quite know how to turn his premise into a full-length play. Rather than focusing on the friendship, “Fetch Clay, Make Man” instead directs our attention on the particular weekend in 1965 that leads to the fight. We see arguments between Ali and Brother Rashid over the death of Malcolm X. Whole chunks of the play are given over to the hot-and-cold interaction between Ali and his wife Sonja, a former party girl who chafes at being forced into playing the good Muslim wife; their scenes recall similar ones in the 2001 Will Smith movie “Ali.”
Director Des McAnuff (Jersey Boys) does what he can to distract us from the petering out of the premise, which is quite a lot, actually. Justin Ellington’s music, the stark white sets by Riccardo Hernandez, Peter Nigrini’s projections all add to an atmosphere that combines nostalgia with sleek dramatic metaphor — the African-Americans are surrounded by whiteness. The cast does much of the heavy lifting, right down to a nearly unrecognizable Richard Masur as the self-satisfied studio head. The extraordinary Nikki M. James (who won a Tony for The Book of Mormon) plays Ali’s wife credibly and sympathetically. But the coups here are the two leads, especially Ray Fisher, who has the muscular build and grace of a fighter and the timing of a natural clown. He nails Ali’s naivete and vulnerability peeking out from beneath his bravado. Close to the same age as Ali was during that weekend in Maine, Fisher is also, as Ali himself would put it, just as pretty. K. Todd Freeman is persuasive as a man beaten down by his own anger, trying to explain himself and hold onto his dignity. There is little effort in the play to recreate the comedy routines of Stepin Fetchit at his prime, a popular vaudevillian before he broke into the movies. There is just one very brief routine at the beginning of the play. This is in sharp contrast to recent theater, from Kander and Ebb’s “The Scottsboro Boys” to Lynn Nottage’s “By The Way, Meet Vera Stark” to “Neighbors” by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who are bolder in exploring a chapter in American history that makes everybody cringe. Power is clearly more comfortable with Muhammad Ali than Stepin Fetchit — and who isn’t?
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Fetch Clay, Make Man
At The New York Theatre Workshop
By Will Power; directed by Des McAnuff; sets by Riccardo Hernandez; costumes by Paul Tazewell; lighting by Howell Binkley; sound by Darron L West; music by Justin Ellington; projections by Peter Nigrini; movement consultant, Lisa Shriver; boxing movement, Michael Olajide Jr.;
Cast: Ray Fisher (Muhammad Ali), K. Todd Freeman (Stepin Fetchit), Anthony Gaskins (Brother Jacob X), Nikki M. James (Sonji Clay), John Earl Jelks (Brother Rashid), Richard Masur (William Fox) and Jeremy Tardy (Brother David X).
Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes including a 15-minute intermission.