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Fetch Clay, Make Man

Theatre Review by Michael Portantiere

Fetch Clay, Make Man
Nikki M. James, K. Todd Freeman, Ray Fisher, John Earl Jelks.
Photo by Joan Marcus.
The life of Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay, has been so colorful and iconic that any one aspect of it might have served as excellent fodder for theatrical treatment. In his new play Fetch Clay, Make Man, now on view at the New York Theatre Workshop, Will Power focuses on a little-known slice of the Ali legend: His friendship with Stepin Fetchit (real name: Lincoln Perry), the film actor (in)famous for his on-screen persona of a seemingly stupid, “shiftless” Negro.

The action of the play begins in 1965 in Lewiston, Maine, not long before Ali’s rematch with Sonny Liston, from whom he had taken the title of heavyweight champ in a historic bout in Miami the year before. Ali, who has only recently joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name, has sent for Fetchit. He’s eager to befriend the older man - partly because, as we eventually learn, he wants to pump him for some boxing tips Fetchit may have gleaned through his friendship with the great, pioneering black boxer Jack Johnson (1878-1946).

But Ali’s ambivalence toward Fetchit is obvious from the get-go. At their first meeting, he teasingly calls him a “coon,” an “Uncle Tom,” and a “chump” to his face. Ali soon stops this “joking” and begins to ingratiate himself with Fetchit. Still, he’s initially reluctant to publicly acknowledge him as a friend - because, after all, how would that look?

Perfect for the role of Ali in terms of charisma, looks, and in every other conceivable way, Ray Fisher gives a bravura performance as The Greatest, indicating his unique vocal cadences, facial expressions, and body language without making him seem like a caricature. But Fetchit is arguably the central figure here, and K. Todd Freeman offers a rich portait of a fascinating, divisive historical personage. No attempt is made to downplay the contempt with which many Civil Rights-era African Americans viewed Fetchit’s legacy. But on the other hand, there are exchanges of dialogue such as the following, when Fetchit meets Ali’s wife, Sonji:

SONJI CLAY:
You know, my father was a big fan.

STEPIN FETCHIT:
Is that right?

SONJI CLAY:
Yeah.

MUHAMMAD ALI:
Your father liked his movies?

SONJI CLAY:
He did. And he would always talk about ’em. How you made him laugh his head off when you would act lazy, you know so you didn’t have to do the white man’s dirty work.

STEPIN FETCHIT:
But still get paid for it.

SONJI CLAY:
Right. And all the way through the depression, you kept my daddy laughin’.

Although the highly unlikely Ali-Fetchit alliance is the heart of Fetch Clay, Make Man, Power explores several other complex issues here. Sonji (beautifully played by Nikki M. James), whom we first see in the traditional garb of a Muslim woman, undergoes a radical transformation during the course of the play. (It’s worth noting that she insists on calling her husband “Cassius” throughout.) There are heated discussions of the late Malcolm X, as well as several flashbacks to Fetchit’s days in Hollywood. (Richard Masur plays movie bigwig William Fox.). And Power has intriguingly written the role of Brother Rashid (John Earl Jelks), the Nation of Islam stalwart who watches over Ali like a hawk, so as to leave the audience unsure for much of the play whether the man is a benevolent force or quite the opposite.

For all of Act I, aside from some rather clunky exposition, Power weaves together these various subjects and character arcs in an eminently satisfying way. So it’s a big disappointment that the play nearly falls apart in Act II, jerking from one fever-pitch, two-character confrontation to the next, all of these scenes marred by a whole lot of screaming. A brilliantly conceived final sequence ends the play on a moving and powerful note, but much of what comes before in the second act is dramatically unpersuasive.

Director Des McAnuff has given Fetch Clay, Make Man a taut, slick production that benefits especially from Peter Nigrini’s striking projection design. (A graphic photo of a freshly murdered Malcom X is the only misstep.) The acting is generally first-rate across the board, although Jelks as Rashid has a few unconvincing emotional transitions and seems to lose control in some of the screamed sections.

Skillfully wrought and compelling in Act I, but much less so in Act II, the play might be significantly improved through pruning or, conversely, the addition of one more character – Sonny Liston, maybe? – to help break up all those two-hand confrontations in the home stretch. And Power should consider changing the play’s title, a pun that’s simultaneously confusing and a little pretentious.

There’s a fair amount of Broadway-transfer buzz attached to this Off-Broadway production. If such a move comes to pass, Power and McAnuff would be well advised to spend some time and additional effort in the interim to make Fetch Clay, Make Man the great play it wants to be, and almost is.


Fetch Clay, Make Man
Through October 13
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street between 2nd Avenue and Bowery
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral