A Good Story About Stepin Fetchit and Muhammad Ali
On May 25, 1965, the last night that he would be known to the world as Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali defended his heavyweight championship in Lewiston, Maine, in a rematch with the menacing Sonny Liston from whom he had won the title in a stunning upset fifteen months earlier. Ali knocked out Liston in the first round after throwing a right hand which was widely dubbed a "phantom punch," as it appeared not to have landed (subsequent viewings of the film of the fight show that Ali actually did land a short, sharp right hand counter squarely to Liston's jaw). When questioned about the "phantom punch," Ali told reporters that he had knocked out Liston with an "anchor punch" that had been employed more than half a century earlier by the legendary black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson. Ali added that he had been taught the punch by the then 73-year-old Stepin Fetchit who was a member of his entourage for the fight. Fetchit, the early talking pictures black comedy star who was widely reviled for the racially demeaning, shuffling, servile style of his screen persona, had socialized with Johnson back in the day.
Coming across a 1965 photograph of Ali and Fetchit with a caption describing Fetchit as Ali's "friend and secret strategist,” playwright Will Power became intrigued by their relationship and the complexity of their personas which have been obscured by their iconic images, as well as the complexities of the civil rights era. The result of Power's awakened interest is Fetch Clay, Make Man, largely an imaginative account of events in the Ali camp in Lewiston leading up to the rematch. The play is augmented by two scenes set at Fox Studios in Hollywood in the 1920s. It is debuting at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton in a well acted, vibrant production under the direction of Des McAnuff.
Fetch Clay's principal storyline is the battle for Muhammad Ali pitting "Brother Rashid" of the Nation of Islam against Fetchit and Ali's wife, Sonji Clay. At first, Ali, who would announce his conversion to Islam and his change of name the day after the fight, is deferred to by Rashid. However, as Rashid drives a wedge between Ali and the others, he demonstrates that he has completed the groundwork for the Nation of Islam to exercise its dominance over the high strung, troubled Ali. Furthermore, Power posits that the unseen Honorable Elijah Muhammad's principal interest in Ali is to use him to promote himself and the reach of his influence (Power strongly implies that Elijah Muhammad was responsible for the murder of Malcolm X in a Harlem church three months earlier). Power's impassioned account of the Nation of Islam as a gangster enterprise and his portrayal of its assumption of dominance over Ali overwhelms his exploration of the relationship between Fetchit and Ali.
An erudite man who at one time wrote for the widely respected African-American Chicago Defender, Lincoln Theodore Monroe Perry developed his performing name and persona, Stepin Fetchit, in vaudeville. At least initially, Fetchit's shuffling behavior was depicted as a ruse employed to avoid the exploitative labor placed upon him by his white "masta." Fetchit was messing with him. The real Fetchit was one of the highest paid and successful film actors of the time. While author Power does not endorse Fetchit's style, he makes it clear that he is sympathetic to the plight of the multi-dimensional Fetchit and will not vilify him for the choices which he made in difficult times.
Ben Vereen is most delightful and engaging as Fetchit. He brings a fitting grace to Power's simpatico Fetchit. Incidentally, it is heartwarming to see Vereen again looking as fit and supple as he did in his Bob Fosse days.
Power does not provide us with crucial factual information which would explain why Fetchit has joined Ali in Lewiston. Newspaper headlines in the theatre program ("Fetchit Gets Big Contract ..."; "Why Can't Fetchit Behave?"; "Fetchit Again Fired..."; "Stepin Owes Millions"; "Fetchit Shuffles to Charity Ward") are helpful, but should not be necessary to complete the playwright's task. The two scenes set at Fox Studios, each of which depicts the sharp Fetchit negotiating rings around studio president William Fox (played by estimable veteran actor Richard Masur), dilute the focus of the play. How much better might it be to have the charismatic Fetchit regale Ali with stories of these negotiations as well as others about his wild, free spending halcyon days and subsequent fall from grace?
Evan Parke accurately captures the braggadocio, nervous energy and mercurial behavior of the tightly wound pre fight Ali. His Ali looks pretty, but he ain't. The author is no less sympathetic to Ali than he is to Fetchit. It is that Power bravely and convincingly cuts through the iconography which has placed Ali on the highest pedestal of sports heroes.
Sonequa Martin brings depth and dimension to the role of Sonji Clay. Initially, Martin's Sonji is cold in her white Nation of Islam coverings. Sonji slowly turns warmer as she develops a rapport with Fetchit. His recognition of her true sensual nature triggers her determination to reject the Nation of Islam. From the start, John Earl Jelks' Brother Rashid is hardly warm or sympathetic. However, Jelks skillfully ratchets up the menace in Rashid as he reveals that, rather than purging the Nation of Islam soldiers of any violent, anti-social tendencies, The Honorable Elijah Muhammad hones and harnesses such tendencies in order to employ them in his service.
Des McAnuff has staged Power's story on a squared stage which simulates a boxing ring and is built out into the auditorium. "Ringside seats" along each side face each other across this ring. Harsh, bright ring lights on a square grid hang above it. Most of the visuals are in white and black (among the exceptions is Sonji's late second act provocative, purple dress). The lively, heightened direction of McAnuff supported by the stylized setting (Riccardo Hernandez), lighting (Howell Binkley) and costumes (Paul Tazewell), effectively and appropriately emphasizes that Fetch Clay belongs to the realm of storytelling. As it turns out, good, somewhat fanciful storytelling at that.
There is still work to be done by Power in order for Fetch Clay to reach its full potential. However, in its McCarter world premiere, Fetch Clay, Make Man is engaging and thought provoking.
Fetch Clay, Make Man continues performances (Evenings: Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday 7:30 pm; Friday-Saturday 8pm/ Matinee: Saturday 3pm and Sunday 2pm) through February 14, 2010, at the McCarter Theatre Center (Berlind Theatre), 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ 08540. Box Office: 609-258-5050; online at www.mccarter.org.
Fetch Clay, Make Man by Will Power; directed by Des McAnuff