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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
Fetch Clay, Make Man

They sayin' I'm a fool,
And lightning won't strike the same place twice
But after this bout
We'll separate men from the mice
Now allow me to talk of mice and men
The challenger can't whup the champion
I'm gonna come so fast, like a piston
Straight to the dome of Mr. Sonny Liston
— Muhammad Ali
Fetch Clay, Make Man
(L-R) Ben Vereen (playing Stepin Fetchit) and Evan Parke (as Muhammad Ali).
(Photo: T. Charles Erickson )
A testy but curiously close relationship, indeed a provocative bonding, evidently occurred between boxing champion Muhammad Ali (Evan Parke) and former Hollywood film star Stepin Fetchit (Ben Vereen). This rather strange meeting and the subsequent interaction between these two notable African-Americans has, unfortunately, not been afforded either a convincing emotional center or a sense of dramatic urgency by playwright Will Power. Power has been at the forefront of hip-hop theater and received accolades in 2006 for Seven, his hip-hop treatment of the Greek Tragedy Seven Against Thebes. For Fetch Clay, Make Man, he has used a more conventional dramatic style, perhaps unwisely, to tell the story. But perhaps I was simply expecting more innovation from this artist.

Parke's performance packs the necessary wallop as the poetically loquacious Ali. His is a vivid portrait of the dynamic, egocentric and uncompromising, fighter who will not consider defeat. Parke's fancy footwork, preening, and posturing let alone his motor-mouthed delivery of Power's often dazzling dialogue are nothing short of virtuosic.

Vereen, the veteran multi-award-winning entertainer of the stage and undoubtedly best known for his memorable performance in Pippin, has ample moments to demonstrate his grace and ingratiating manner. More importantly, he gives a profoundly moving characterization of the talented, intelligent and resourceful ex-vaudevillian (real name Lincoln Perry, 1902 - 1985) who knew how to outfox the Hollywood big wigs. Parke and Vereen have been directed by Des McAnuff with a winning consideration of their individual and exploitable talents. McAnuff, who knows how to make the most of conventions (Jersey Boys), smoothes the edges of this somewhat choppy, episodic play.

Although the play is mainly set in 1965 in Ali's dressing room in Lewiston, Maine during the days leading up to Muhammad Ali's historic rematch with Sonny Liston, it also travels back in time to 1929 - 1931 so that we see the beginning of Fetchit's remarkable, if ultimately controversial, career. Unfortunately, Power's attempt to build a substantial play that is driven by both the commonality as well as the disparity of these two remarkable men is only sporadically compelling. Unlike the legendary fight in which Ali floors Liston in the first round, we have to wait for Act II in order to see the play percolate with dramatic intensity and an involving conflict.

Learning of Fetchit's friendship with legendary boxer Jack Johnson, Ali requests a meeting with Fetchit whom he hopes will be willing to reveal the secret behind Johnson's famed "anchor punch." Fetchit, whose fame in both silent and talkie films between 1925 and 1935 came from repeatedly playing a shiftless, illiterate and lazy "Uncle Tom" type character, was denounced as deplorable by a newly enfranchised African-American society. He is nevertheless, eager to see his life reassessed and his career revitalized. He has hopes that his association with Ali will lead to a film. "Once they see me with Ali, they'll see I ain't no traitor."

Ali's conversion to the Nation of Islam is offered as a point of conflict between him and Fetchit, a devout Catholic, Fetchit makes it quite clear how he feels about what he sees and hears, especially in the wake of the assassination of Malcolm X. It is for Brother Rashid (John Earl Jelks), Ali's belligerent and potentially dangerous brother-in-Islam cum body-guard, and Ali's beautiful, sexy spirited wife Sonji (Sonequa Martin) to drive the play's most absorbing scenes. Jelks, who gave an extraordinary performance as Sterling in August Wilson's Radio Golf (on Broadway and on a tour that included the McCarter) is close to terrifying as the ex-gangster Brother Rashid whose goal is to destroy Ali's relationship with both Fetchit and Sonji. Martin gives a fine and touching performance as the victimized Sonji, who strives to survive her past.

The play's most disappointing and artificially composed scenes are between Fetchit and the crass studio head William Fox, as played without much credibility by Richard Masur. The usually admirable Masur will undoubtedly invest the role with more than is written in subsequent performances.

The stark simplicity of designer Riccardo Hernandez grey and white setting with its minimal accompanying décor is enhanced by Howell Binkley's affective lighting. Costume designer Paul Tazewell has dressed the company smartly showing a particular flair for Ms. Martin's attractive and by-color-enhanced outfits (once she sheds the white robes). At its best, Fetch Clay, Make Man gainfully alludes to the significant roles these two extraordinary African-Americans played in each other's lives and in America's social history. This may be enough to serve as a counterpunch to a play whose important themes have been too noticeably scattered and diffused.

> Review of Will Powers' previous plays: Flow and Sevem

Fetch Clay, Make Man
By Will Power
Directed by Des McAnuff

Cast: Ben Vereen (Stepin Fetchit), Evan Parke (Muhammad Ali), John Earl Jelks (Brother Rashid), Richard Masur (William Fox), Sonequa Martin (Sonji Clay), Ray Fisher, Kenric Green (Brothers in the Nation of Islam)
Set Design: Riccardo Hernandez
Costume Design: Paul Tazewell
Lighting Design: Howell Binkley
Projection Design: Peter Nigrini
Soundscape Darron L.West
Original Music: Justin Ellington
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes including intermission
Berlind Theatre at the McCarter Theater Center, 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ.
(609) 258 - 2787
Tickets ($15 - $60)
Performances: Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 PM; Fridays at 8 PM, Saturdays at 3 and 8 PM, Sundays at 2 and 7:30 PM.
Opened 01/15/10
Ends 02/14/10
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 01/15/10

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