By: David Sheward
Can you imagine two more unlikely historical figures to form a friendship than Muhammad Ali and Stepin Fetchit? One was the unconquerable heavyweight boxing champion who kayoed African-American stereotypes with brash aggressiveness, while the other perpetuated the clichés of servility and laziness in dozens of Hollywood movies. But playwright Will Power found a photo of the two men in a bookstore, did copious research, and has constructed a powerful examination of race, manhood, and identity in Fetch Clay, Make Man, now at the New York Theatre Workshop after a previous production at the McCarter Theatre.
The time is May 1965 on the weekend leading up to Ali’s big match-up with Sonny Liston to defend his title, with occasional flashbacks surveying Fetchit’s rise and fall in Hollywood. Power imagines that the cocky young boxer has summoned the older actor because the latter was close friends with Jack Johnson, the legendary African-American champ fictionally depicted in the boxing drama The Great White Hope. Ali wants the secret of Johnson’s legendary, almost mystical "anchor punch," and he’s sure Fetchit has it locked inside his head. The actor has an agenda as well: If he can publicize his connection to Ali, his moribund film career could be resurrected. He might even convince the hot star of the ring to make a movie with him.
Other players have games of their own. Brother Rashid, the bellicose representative of the Nation of Islam, to which the former Cassius Clay has recently converted, is intent on keeping their shining new athletic icon on the straight and very narrow path, while Ali’s wife Sonji wrestles with the restrictive Muslim entourage for access to her husband. She also battles internally between the oppressive role placed upon her by her new religion and her former free-spirited lifestyle. Even the brash studio mogul William Fox, who appears only in Fetchit’s flashbacks, has manipulations and machinations aplenty.
The sleek and energetic staging by Des McAnuff on Riccardo Hernandez’s minimalist, boxing-ring set does much to alleviate the obviousness of some of Power’s construction. Ali’s conflict with his wife is wrapped up, and then the champ immediately demands Fetchit give him the secret of Johnson’s irresistible punch. All of this takes places just minutes before the big fight. It’s all bit too neat and tidy to fully deal with the messy and complicated issues Power raises. Yet the playwright throws a searing light on the nature of American celebrity and identity. Each of the characters wears a mask in order to get what he or she wants, and each actor powerfully conveys the assumed persona and the real person beneath it.
K. Todd Freeman is a brilliantly sly Fetchit, whose real name was Lincoln Perry and who was able to play the white man’s game and become the first black millionaire in the movie business. You can see the wheels turning in his head as he plays the clown when it suits him and then almost imperceptibly becomes a lighting-fast hustler when necessary. Ray Fisher has the physical attributes of the young Ali and imparts his ferocious ego equally convincingly. The exciting new actor also captures the little-boy insecurities inside the hulking boxer. Nikki M. James delivers a fierce Sonji, John Earl Jelks a shark-like Rashid, and Richard Masur a crafty Fox. The play is not quite a knockout, but thanks to its director and cast, it’s a TKO.
Sept. 12-Oct. 13. New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th St., NYC. Tue-Wed 7pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. Running time 2 hours and 10 minutes, including intermission. $70. (212) 279-4200.
Photo: Joan Marcus