Champion boxer Cassius Clay a.k.a Muhammad Ali is a central character in Will Power’s FETCH CLAY, MAKE MAN, so sitting ringside at the New York Theatre Workshop and watching its actors throw one emotional punch after another at each other, I kept hoping for that big knockout blow that sends you out of the theatre reeling. The only actual knockout, though, was a historical one reported in the play via a TV broadcast telling us that Ali had felled Sonny Liston in one round during their 1965 championship rematch in Lewiston, Maine. Given the controversy surrounding both the Liston-Clay fight of 1964, when the 22-year-old Clay (as he was then called) took the championship by a TKO in six rounds from the ferocious Liston, and the even greater volcano that erupted when Clay knocked Liston out in less than two minutes a year later, one might think those moments in boxing history worthy of a play that focused on them, but playwright Will Power has other things on his mind in FETCH CLAY, MAKE MAN.
From left: Ray Fisher, John Earl Jelks. Photo: Joan Marcus
In 2005, Powers’s curiosity was ignited when he came across a photo of Ali and the black movie actor Stepin Fetchit, two individuals whose positions in the context of African-American history appeared to be at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Ali was a remarkably outspoken opponent of anything that suggested servility to the white establishment, while Fetchit had become famous for his iconic characterization of a lazy, shiftless black man. Powers’s research revealed that the men did, indeed, share a friendship in the mid-1960s, and he telescoped that knowledge into FETCH CLAY, MAKE MAN, a play that covers a couple of days prior to the 1965 Liston-Ali contest.
The action takes place on a striking white stage (designed by Riccardo Hernandez) accented in black, with sleek chrome furnishings, and a white projection screen dominating the rear wall. The acting space is a raised, square platform suggesting a boxing ring, and the seating at the NYTW has been rearranged so that the audience sits on the three sides of it. Overhead hang four large boxing spotlights set within a grid-like framework. No actual boxing ring is shown, though, as the play transpires either in Ali’s locker room, a gym, and—in flashbacks to the late 1920s and early 1930s—in the office of William Fox (Richard Masur), the Hollywood movie producer who presided over Fetchit’s rise and fall as the first major black movie star. Terrific still and video projections by Peter Nigrini, combined with superb lighting by Howell Binkley and spot-on costumes by Paul Tazewell, help make this show a visual contender.
K. Todd Freeman (left) and Richard Masur. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Within this visually cool environment there transpires a rather hot tale in which Muhammad Ali is preparing for his Lewiston fight with Liston when he summons Fetchit (K. Todd Freeman), a man he’s never met, to his training camp. Ali only recently has taken that Muslim name in conjunction with having joined the Nation of Islam, which owed its allegiance to Elijah Muhammad, considered a prophet and referred to as the Messenger. Fetchit’s arrival immediately sets up tensions between Ali’s bodyguard, Brother Rashid (John Earl Jelks), an intensely militaristic Black Muslim with a shady past, and Fetchit, whom Rashid despises for what he believes is the irreparable damage he’s done to the Negro race by his “Uncle Tom” career. Ali’s principal reason for summoning Fetchit is the actor’s onetime friendship with the great black fighter, Jack Johnson, whose secrets he hopes Fetchit—whom he jokingly calls his “secret strategist”—will share with him, especially the one Ali calls the “anchor punch.” This is surely a reference to the blow with which Ali appears to have crushed Liston in Lewiston, one dubbed the “phantom punch” by the press because it seemed to come from nowhere and had to be seen in slow-mo replays before it could be verified. (There were reports Liston took a dive, but none of this is examined in the play.) When Ali finally learns the secret punch, it comes through a moment of magic realism in the staging, as if it were a supernatural gift.
Nikki M. James and Ray Fisher. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Despite the developments leading up to the big fight; despite the struggle among Ali, Rashid, and Fetchit over the latter’s place in Ali’s entourage; despite the conflict that Fetchit’s presence creates between the puritanical Ali and his beautiful wife, Sonji (Nikki M. James), when she decides to abandon the white headdress and gown that mark her as a devout Muslim for the kind of sexy clothing and makeup that show off her good looks; despite the threat represented by the possibility of Malcolm X’s supporters coming to Lewiston to seek revenge for what they believe to be the Nation’s complicity in Malcolm’s assassination; despite kidney punches aimed at the Messenger’s claims about a “mother ship” due to appear at the coming end of the world; and despite other dramaturgic infusions, the play is not primarily a narrative of the events leading up to Ali’s victory. Instead, it is an examination of different ideas on the nature of black-white racial relationships as they existed in 1965 with, of course, the purpose of our viewing those ideas in the context of today’s still troubled racial attitudes.
Ray Fisher and K. Todd Freeman. Photo: Joan Marcus.
We get the full blast of the anti-white rhetoric spewed by the Nation of Islam; its rivalry with the ideology of Malcolm X (never actually explained); Ali’s ambivalence about not working for the white man despite his insistence on retaining white trainers; and, most significantly, perhaps, because least well known, the complex role of Stepin Fetchit in the history of America’s perception of blacks. Fetchit, whose real name was the rather elite-sounding Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, is shown as anything but the slacker he portrayed (he was dubbed “the laziest man in the world”). In flashback scenes, we view him as a cultured artist who loves classical music and a crafty negotiator who outfoxes Willam Fox to gain a huge contract and various perks (he became the first millionaire black actor and the first to receive a screen credit). The play allows him to display some of his stage and screen bits, which contrast distinctly with the man’s actual persona. However, when he demands more serious roles that will allow him to slip off the skin of the shuffling Negro clown, he essentially ends his thriving career. Fetchit sees his alliance with Ali as a chance to make a film about the controversial pugilist, thereby redeeming his reputation and demonstrating his cultural importance in the nation’s racial history.
From left: Nikki M. James, K. Todd Freeman, Ray Fisher, and John Earl Jelks. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Des McAnuff’s problem as a director was to mold a play with several strong dramatic subjects and an overarching theme, but with no sharp dramatic through-line, into a cohesive unit. The play goes from round to round with a series of jabs and thrusts that create momentary theatrical conflict, but, apart from the subject of racial attitudes, without a strong driving force. McAnuff and his extremely capable cast cover up this weakness with multiple encounters that often escalate into shouted arguments at the end of which we can practically hear the bell ringing to send the combatants to their corners. It is all done, of course, with the smoothest professionalism and panache, and, moment by moment, the effect can be gripping. Nevertheless, there’s a whole lot of shouting going on that weakens the overall effect.
I’m often disappointed by the casting of actors in the roles of familiar historical people, but Ray Fisher and K. Todd Freeman offer very believable representations of Muhammad Ali and Stepin Fetchit. Fisher is closer physically to the man he’s playing than is Freeman. He’s got the size, the ripped body (from the glimpses we get through his open robe, he's even more sculpted than Ali was), a strikingly similar pretty face, and something of Ali’s skin-tone. He captures the champ’s boastful egocentricity and irrepressible energy, his childish delight in practical jokes, his fondness for rambunctious rhymes praising his prowess and ridiculing his ring mates, and his light-footed ring dancing and speedy sparring (the boxing movement is credited to Michael Olajide, Jr.); pound for pound, he’s a damned good incarnation of “The Greatest.”
K. Todd Freeman, at 45, is a bit young to be playing Stepin Fetchit, who was 63 in 1965; Ben Vereen, who played the role in the 2010 McCarter Theatre production in Princeton, was just about the same age as the character, and seems from photos to have been rather close to him in appearance. But Freeman brings outstanding acting skills to the table, and manages to embody the role in numerous subtle ways that make him deeply engaging, sympathetic, and truthful. His relatively subdued performance offers a fine contrast with that of the aggressively ebullient Fisher. Excellent supporting work is provided by Nikki K. James as Sonji and John Earl Jenks as Rashid, but Richard Masur’s Jewish movie mogul is too much the familiar barking, cigar-smoking power broker. Richard Kind brought more dimension to a similar role in last season’s THE BIG KNIFE.
FETCH CLAY, MAKE MAN, despite its odd title and its odd couple, is an interesting and often engrossing work of theatre. But it lacks the phantom (or anchor) punch that will knock your teeth out or your socks off.