Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

Fetch Clay, Make Man
Round House Theatre


Roscoe Orman and Eddie Ray Jackson
If the only way an African-American performer could succeed in 1930s Hollywood was to present the most demeaning, insulting racial stereotypes, was doing so acceptable if he then became a highly paid star? When times changed and an outspoken African-American man reached out to that performer, by then either forgotten or reviled, what could that mean?

Unlikely as it seems, the above situation actually happened. Playwright Will Power unearths the true story of how Muhammad Ali (Eddie Ray Jackson) became friends with Stepin Fetchit (Roscoe Orman) in Fetch Clay, Make Man, now at Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Maryland. Director Derrick Sanders maintains tension throughout the drama, and both leading actors give blazing performances.

The setting is Lewiston, Maine, in 1965, just prior to Ali's second fight against Sonny Liston for the heavyweight boxing title. Christopher Baine's sound design and Caite Hevner Kemp's immersive projection design drop the audience in the middle of the era through the sounds of James Brown, Smokey Robinson, and Otis Redding, matched with scenes of civil rights actions and the rise of the Nation of Islam.

Ali was still known widely by his pre-conversion name of Cassius Clay at the time of the fight, so the promotional signs on Courtney O'Neill's set say "Liston-Clay." Jackson captures the larger-than-life essence of the cocky young fighter: constantly in motion, speaking in rhymed couplets, crowing about how "pretty" he is, and already calling himself "the greatest." He welcomes Fetchit (whose real name was Lincoln Perry) for one specific reason: Fetchit knew the earlier African-American boxing champion Jack Johnson, and Ali wants to learn everything he can about Johnson's technique.

Orman brings dignity and self-possession—as well as a dark sense of humor—to his portrayal of Fetchit. Unlike the lazy, shiftless character he often played, Fetchit was a shrewd manipulator; Power inserts scenes of the actor's negotiations with studio head William Fox (Robert Sicular), who earlier had fought his own battles to succeed as the son of poor Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. The other cast members are Jefferson A. Russell as Brother Rashid, Ali's no-nonsense bodyguard, and Katherine Renee Turner as Ali's first wife Sonji, dealing with the stresses of being a traditional Muslim wife as opposed to a fun-loving young African-American woman.

Round House Theatre
Fetch Clay, Make Man
October 10th - November 2nd
By Will Power
Stepin Fetchit: Roscoe Orman
Muhammad Ali: Eddie Ray Jackson
Brother Rashid: Jefferson A. Russell
William Fox: Robert Sicular
Sonji Clay: Katherine Renee Turner
Directed by Derrick Sanders
4545 East-West Highway
Bethesda, MD
Ticket Information: 240-644-1100 or www.roundhousetheatre.org


Photo: Kevin Berne


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