The two men are comedian and film-actor Stepin Fetchit, and Cassius Clay, also known as the boxer Mohammad Ali.
The two men came together just before Ali’s second bout with Sonny Liston. Fetchit had been close to boxer Jack Johnson who was known for his “anchor punch.” Ali has called him in to teach him that punch. What transpires is a whole lot more about these men’s dramatically and diametrically opposed viewpoints.
Playwright Will Power has captured the characters of Fetchit and Ali with a dimensionality that one covets in a play. As it poignantly looks at the issue of racism through two different lenses, two powerful and intelligent men represent each side. During the civil rights movement of the ‘60s, many in the black community saw Fetchit as an Uncle Tom, others saw him as subversive. In fact, his “laziest man in the world” character mocked the white man’s stereo-type and thus gave him ownership of it. Perhaps Fetchit states it best when he says to Ali, “I snuck in the back door so you could walk in the front door.”
Ray Fisher floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee as Ali. He not only resembles Ali, but perfectly captures Ali’s infamous ego and posturing. While this critic knows next-to-nothing about boxing, Fisher certainly seemed to have Ali’s dance moves down.
K. Todd Freeman gives us a poignant portrayal of Stepin Fetchit. He can say more simply by lowering his head than many actors can say in a whole book of dialogue.
As Ali’s first wife, Nikki M. James (a Tony Award winner for The Book of Mormon) playfully and bitterly portrays Sonji Ali’s point of view during her brief marriage to Ali. Mr. Power’s play gives her a complete character with a broad range of emotion, James takes it and runs with it.
John Earl Jelks is Ali’s right-hand man, Brother Rashid. His character is volatile and occasionally Jelks’s snap in change of emotions undercuts his character’s believability. Richard Masur as studio executive, William Fox is caricature-like. His portrayal is every stereo-typical loud-mouth, Jewish studio chief every written.
Director Des McAnuff has guided Mr. Power’s work with precision and a keen eye for powerfully emotional moments. At the end of the first act, your breath is taken away as Fetchit cries “I ain’t never been no Sambo.”
Scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez has cleverly designed a set that mimics the square shape of a boxing ring. It has a square, stark-white playing area that is mirrored overhead with a framing device that surrounds hanging gymnasium mercury lights. The audience has been reconfigured so that it is seated around three sides of “the ring”.
The 1960s costumes by costume designer Paul Tazewell are stunning.
The lighting by Howell Binkley is brutal. It is completely white and at such a level that your eyes atrophy and ache by the end of the first act. When the play calls for us to flash back to another time, the lights come down by about 30% and we see vivid photographs of Ali during fights (brilliantly rendered by projection designer Peter Nigrini.) While they probably had to do the lighting pull-down so that the audience could better see the projections, the downward volume in lighting felt like the opposite of what should be happening. It was as though these moments could have been treated as a musical number in a musical where the lighting traditionally is lower for a book seen and then brought to a brighter level for the musical numbers.
Will Power’s play grabs you by the lapels and doesn’t let go. It is in your face and reminds you of what the civil rights movement of the 1960s was about.
It is always a pleasure to go to New York Theatre Workshop. They can be counted on to produce a quality work that will always make you think and feel something. Fetch Clay, Make Man is no different.
Fetch Clay, Make Man was originally commissioned by the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ as part of their Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation residency.