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A CurtainUp Review
Fetch Clay, Make Man
"I'm in my prime and you're in your renaissance." — Ali (to Fetchit)
Nikki M. James,K. Todd Freeman, Ray Fisher, John Earl Jelks(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

It has been a three-year journey from the McCarter Theater in Princeton to the New York Theater Workshop for Will Power's Fetch Clay, Make Man, about the unlikely but nevertheless extraordinary bonding between boxing champion Muhammad Ali and former Hollywood star Stepin Fetchit. Frankly I was surprised that it took so long for this interesting (in the best sense of the word) play to reach New York although a program note does state that Power continued to develop the play that I originally reviewed for CurtainUp in January 2010.

Understandably, there have been some significant cast changes since the original production, although John Earl Jelks is once again terrifically chilling as Ali's body guard Brother Rashid, a former pimp but now one of the brothers of the Nation of Islam. Richard Masur is also back and excellent playing the movie mogul William Fox. The most notable return is that of Ray Fisher who played one of the "Brothers" at Princeton, but has now stepped impressively into the role of Muhammad Ali. But it also is clear that K. Todd Freeman who is playing Stepin Fetchit (in the role originally played by Ben Vereen) becomes the champion of every round he is in.

It is hard to say whether Fetch Clay, Make Man is meaner and leaner than it was previously. The running time remains virtually the same at two hours and fifteen minutes including an intermission. Looking, however, afresh at McAnuff's slick and polished staging is seeing how much better it looks in the more intimate New York Theater Workshop where a thrust stage and three-quarter-in-the-round seating brings a feeling of being in a small boxing arena. The sleek simplicity of the raised platform and the few set pieces that comprise scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez contribution, enhanced by the projection design by Peter Nigrini (both repeating their original assignments), are a decided plus.

The strange initial meeting of Ali and Fetchit and the subsequent interaction between the two is essentially the core of the play. The plot is driven by Ali's attempt, on the eve of a major fight, to get his guest whom he knows to be a former friend to fighting legend Jack Johnson to reveal the secret of Johnson's "anchor punch."

The confrontations between Ali and his wife Sonji (Nikki M. James) and those between Fetchit, an ardent Catholic, and Rashid, a brother in the Nation of Islam, seem tenser and make more of an impact. While the bantering between Ali and Stepin provides some insight into them as very diverse personalities, sparks really fly between Sonji and Ali. James, who won a Tony Award for her performance in The Book of Mormon, is spirited and sexy as the former b-girl who, despite her love for Ali, finds it difficult to conform to the rigid rules that dictate the behavior of a Muslim wife. I liked that she is certainly nobody's fool, especially when she fearlessly tells Fetchit, "You are using my husband to resurrect your career."

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."

Some audiences will undoubtedly know and/or recall the image of Stepin Fetchit as a comical dullard in countless movies during the 1930s and 1940s, but few will have any knowledge of him as an educated multi-talented vaudevillian who conformed to stereotype to earn a living acting in film. He sadly lived to become an embarrassment to black people as a symbol of subservient ignorance. Freeman, who appeared in A Civil War Christmas at the NYTW and was nominated for Tony for his performance on Broadway in Song of Jacob Zulu, has us in his corner from the outset being both touching and tenacious in turn as a man (real name Lincoln Perry, 1902-1985), who knew how to cleverly negotiate (very funny scene) a contract and to outfox — namely William Fox, the bigwig of the Fox Movie Studio.

Memory is fleeting and I don't have the original script, but the scenes between Fetchit and Mr. Fox do seem to have more bite and are a little closer to reality. Veteran actor Masur, who is making his NYTW debut, has really nailed it this time as the crass studio head William Fox. He has a great scene in which he draws a parallel between himself and Fetchit as two men pretending to be who they are not in order to survive.

Fisher, also making his NYTW debut, comes through like a champ as the pugnacious, loquacious Ali. Hitting hard and speaking loudly, he provides all the essentials that have served to define the dynamic, egocentric, and uncompromising fighter. Fisher's fancy dancin' and his fancier speechifying are often dazzling. But, I don't know why most everyone is given to shouting their lines.

Set in 1965 in Ali's dressing room in Lewiston, Maine, during the days leading up to his historic rematch with Sonny Liston, the play also travels back in time to the period of 1929 to 1931 and to Fetchit's remarkable, if ultimately controversial, career. Frankly, Ali has been dramatized before with all of the same and familiar traits and attributes, but not so for the fleetingly famous Fetchit who is getting his chance to be heard. He, for me, is the real heart of the play.

Some of the best tension-filled moments occur between Fetchit and the resentful and volatile Rashid who cannot withhold his contempt for the man whom Ali calls his "secret strategist." Ali's conversion to the Nation of Islam is offered as a point of conflict between him and the Catholic Fetchit. The play is pointedly critical of the Nation of Islam, a perspective that may be offensive to some. McAnuff and Power have certainly spent enough time on this play presumably trying to make its choppy and episodic structure work to secure our involvement. To that end, we are involved.

Fetch Clay, Make Man by Will Power
Directed by Des McAnuff
Cast: Ray Fisher (Muhammad Ali), K. Todd Freeman (Stepin Fetchit), Anthony Gaskins (Brother Jacob X), Nikki M. James (Sonji Clay), John Earl Jelks (Brother Rashid), Richard Masur (William Fox), Jeremy Tardy (Brother David X).
Scenic Design: Riccardo Hernandez
Costume Design: Paul Tazewell
Lighting Design: Howell Binkley
Sound Design: Daron L. West
Original Music: Justin Ellington
Projection Design: Peter Nigrini Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes including intermission
NYTW, 79 East 4 Street, between Bowery and Second Avenue
From 8/23/13; opening 9/12/13; closing 10/13/13
Thursday and Friday at 8:00pm; Saturday at 3pm and 8pm; Sunday at 2pm and 7pm.
Tickets start at $70
Reviewed by Simon Saltzman at September 10th press performance
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