In 1965, Muhammad Ali was boxing’s Heavyweight Champion, and also a scary, threatening figure to a substantial portion of “white” America. Soon after winning the title the previous year, he announced to the world that he was abandoning his “slave” name of Cassius Clay, and that he was a member of the Nation of Islam(sometimes called the “Black Muslims” by the 1960’s media). The bold and brash Muhammad was known as “the Louisville Lip” and could often be found in the company of his good friend, Malcolm X—who was then considered a racially divisive figure by many in the United States. In other words, Malcolm frightened white, conservative Americans even more than Ali. By May of 1965 though, Malcolm had been assassinated in New York the previous February, and Ali was preparing to defend his title against the man he took it from—the still fearsome Sonny Liston. Flashback 40 years to 1925 Hollywood, where the film career of Lincoln Perry was just getting under way. Perry would eventually become the first black actor to become a millionaire, and also the very first to receive an actual onscreen film credit of his name. But by 1965, Lincoln Perry’s stage name had become despised and controversial, due to the negative stereotyping it saddled African-Americans with from the infancy of motion pictures and beyond. You see, Mr. Perry was an extremely popular movie star, and became very rich—but under the name of Stepin Fetchit. But by the 1960’s he was all but broke, and seen as a discredit to his race for the perpetual role that made him infamous—that of the “laziest man in the world”. Is it even remotely possible that a 23-year-old symbol of 1960’s “black power”, and a dismissed and derided 63-year-old symbol of negative black caricatures could become friends? Well, they did, and that story has become the basis of an invigorating new work from playwright Will Power. It’s a wonderful show that not only gives you a crash course in history, but features two of the most dynamic and striking performances I’ve seen on an off-Broadway stage in many a season. Ray Fisher’s Ali and K. Todd Freeman’s Stepin Fetchit make a riveting tandem. And my second trip in less than a year to Greenwich Village’s New York Theatre Workshop, proved to be as fruitful as the first. “Fetch Clay, Make Man”, despite some rough edges, is a marvelous two-act chronicle.
In the play’s opening scene, a rope-jumping Muhammad Ali(Mr. Fisher, refreshingly not attempting a straight impersonation of “The Greatest”)has ordered his entourage to summon Stepin Fetchit(the commanding K. Todd Freeman from NYTW’s “A Civil War Christmas”, reviewed here in 2012). When they finally meet, Ali is so incensed by the former film star’s demeaning portrayals from his movie heyday, that he threatens to pummel him and commands him to put up his “dukes”. A frightened Fetchit reluctantly obliges, only to have Ali fall to the floor laughing hysterically that the slightly built senior citizen was about to fall for his prank. Then a relieved Stepin Fetchit and the boisterous boxing marvel sit down to discuss their many differences—and discover how they are also remarkably similar. Mavericks in their chosen professions during two distinctly different eras, they both were able to buck the system and become rich and renowned—and eventually infamous too. But we soon learn that they each sported an agenda for their unlikely meeting, as well. Ali wants Step(as the champ calls the actor)to teach him the “anchor punch”, a legendary weapon of Fetchit’s old friend Jack Johnson, the first black Heavyweight Champion from 1908-1915. And Step wants to parlay a companionship with the new champion into a revived film career, with the charismatic titlist appearing with him on the big screen. But the tenets of Ali’s Muslim faith threatens to tear all those hopes down. First, from a disapproving Islamic brotherhood that’s channeled through the character of Brother Rashid(a glowering and dangerous-feeling John Earl Jelks), a reformed criminal that is now a devout Muslim and a key member of Ali’s team. Rashid despises what Stepin Fetchit represents and displays his fervent disapproval at every turn. Then there’s the vivacious and stunning, Sonji Roi Ali, Muhammad’s exotic first wife. As played by Nikki M. James(winner of the Best Featured Actress in a Musical Tony in 2011 for Broadway’s “The Book of Mormon”), we first meet Sonji covered from head-to-toe in full Muslim dress—a modesty-dictated wearing of clothing that only exposes her face. But Step gently chides her in private when they are briefly alone together in Ali’s dressing room. He pegs her as a former party girl who is masking her true nature. And in her remaining appearances, we see Sonji in a variety of colorful short skirts and matching heels as she struggles to maintain her identity—much to the chagrin of her religious hubby. All throughout this well-paced play is the spectre of the vicious Sonny Liston, who has reportedly taken his physical training very seriously after underestimating the lightning-quick Ali the first time around. Liston, we’re told, is determined to destroy Muhammad to regain his crown—and we witness Ali’s fervent insistence of implementing Johnson’s “anchor punch” as a secret weapon. But it’s not until late in Act II that we find out if Stepin Fetchit is even able to assist him in his quest.
Muhammad Ali was my boyhood hero, and I maintain an idolatry of the man to this day. By the 1970’s, it was thought he was possibly the most recognizable human being on the planet, and he has been the subject of countless books, films, art, photography, periodical articles and television specials to prove it. So, you can take my word for it, I am quite well-versed on the life and times of this most public of figures, and it’s usually a piece of cake for me to catch writers “cheating”, so to speak. And Will Power, while fictionalizing certain aspects of this drama, and condensing others to support his time frame, stays admirably focused on the “meat” of the great boxer’s life, and also the turmoil, as it was, during this mid-1960’s time frame. In fact, it was always understandable when the playwright decided to fib, just a little bit, to keep things cohesive. Plus, he never seemed to betray the myth or the reality of his remarkable subject. It’s a superb achievement and I enthusiastically applaud his acuity. “Fetch Clay, Make Man” was directed by Tony-award winning Des McAnuff(“Big River”, “The Who’s Tommy”), and he expertly stages the action and dialogue around occasional rear projections of vintage photographs of his two fascinating real-life icons. Riccardo Hernandez’s scenic design impressively morphs the look of a boxer’s training/dressing room within parameters that are lit and cornered to suggest an actual boxing ring. And, post-performance I learned that the boxing consultant for the play is Michael Olajide, Jr., a flamboyant middleweight contender from the 1980’s, who I witnessed boxing on network television frequently throughout that decade. This winning team, along with stellar acting, make “Fetch Clay, Make Man” a stirring theatrical experience. And let me not forget to also cite prolific stage and screen character actor Richard Masur as William Fox, a movie studio mogul that negotiates with Stepin Fetchit in flashback-style scenes. Ray Fisher is pure dynamite as Muhammad Ali, and K. Todd Freeman maintains a poignant dignity as a man once reviled for his contribution to American cinema(there have been some recent re-evaluations regarding the positive impact that Stepin Fetchit made on African-Americans in the arts and in general…the play works hard to inform us that the poor man was judged too harshly once his career floundered). It’s also a work that is greatly pre-occupied with the balance between public perception and reality, and the masks we wear to get ahead. It culminates with Stepin Fetchit watching the Ali-Liston rematch on television in Muhammad’s dressing room. That mystical, mega-controversial matchup supplied us with thee most iconic photograph of the enigmatic champion. You’ll recognize it when you see it emblazoned during the finale, at the back of the stage. It’s understandable that this production was only able to touch on just how mind-blowingly surreal this legendary fight was. So, Power focuses on its mythical qualities. And what I first believed to be a mishandled ending has grown on me since seeing this a few days ago. Despite, a slightly less focused second act, “Fetch Clay, Make Man” is a powerful new play. Unfortunately, it closed its limited run the day after I attended, but a possible transfer to Broadway or a future revival should not be missed. This show rates an 8