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Fetch Clay, Make Man

Playwright Will Power molds a powerful historical drama about the friendship between boxing champion Muhammad Ali and controversial black film star Stepin Fetchit.

L to R: Nikki M. James, K. Todd Freeman, Ray Fisher, and John Earl Jelks
(© Joan Marcus)

In 1965, boxing heavyweight and Muslim champion of black America Cassius Clay (soon to become Muhammad Ali) recruited the unlikely expertise of Hollywood's most successful black film star, Stepin Fetchit (known by the name of his demeaning onscreen character), to help him train for his legendary 1965 rematch against Sonny Liston. It's a heartwarming unlikely friendship story made in Hollywood heaven — yet, playwright Will Power has raised the simple pop culture fodder to new heights at New York Theatre Workshop, digging to the heart of the 1960s African-American struggle through the experiences of these two historical figures.

Ray Fisher's physical embodiment of Ali is striking, as he takes the stage with Clay's imposing build and signature hairstyle. While his performance occasionally sways towards the melodramatic, Fisher successfully embodies the smooth-talking charm that the boxing champ brought to his public persona as well as the inner turmoil he kept hidden behind closed doors.

Having declared himself a member of the "Black Muslims" immediately after his first match with Liston in 1964, a time already embroiled in racial controversy, Ali became one of the most notable faces of the anti-white Muslim movement. Through the power of dramatic tension, Power leaves us wholeheartedly convinced that the credibility of the Black Muslim platform, the future of black America, and Cassius Clay himself as a black American, all ride on his rematch with Liston.

Enter Stepin Fetchit.

Ali calls on the actor's coaching services (despite encouragement to the contrary due to Stepin Fetchit's less-than-favorable reputation among the African-American community) after hearing he had had a friendship with boxing great and Ali's personal idol, Jack Johnson. K. Todd Freeman's performance as the misunderstood actor is just as emotionally riveting as it is visually stunning. Though the majority of the play focuses on Fetchit's savvy off-camera persona, he slips into the signature "Stepin Fetchit act" at various points throughout the show with impressive physical specificity and comedic timing — though the pain of being forced to assume the demeaning caricature pierces through his painted-on smile and slow southern drawl. Fetchit's rage comes to a head in a heart-wrenching monologue he delivers at the close of Act I, one of the most powerful scenes of the entire production.

Des McAnuff shows restraint in his direction, striking a nice balance between dramatization and historical storytelling. Both leading actors absorb the physicality of their historical counterparts, but rather than offering trite impressions, they have clearly grounded their movements and vocal affects in a deep, emotional understanding of their characters and the relationship that develops between them. Projections of the historical moments being depicted onstage (designed by Peter Nigrini) fill the back wall between scenes, gently placing us in the appropriate temporal location, but like shadows of the past, quickly fading away to return us to the emotional exploration at hand.

The square, stark white stage (designed by Riccardo Hernandez) alludes to a boxing ring, placing all of the characters perpetually in the trenches of battle where sacrifices are many and victories are few. Stepin Fetchit has sacrificed his dignity as well as his identity as Lincoln Perry, a talented actor and shrewd businessman, in order to make a name for black actors in Hollywood; Cassius Clay has become equally consumed by his self-imposed image as Muhammad Ali: Leader of the Black Muslims and the savior of the African-American population; and his wife, Sonji (played by Book of Mormon Tony winner Nikki M. James, who proves her acting chops can stand on their own without any assistance from a catchy showtune), struggles to decide whether or not to join him in his crusade for black America, or to fight for her own self-preservation. History serves up the spoilers in this case, but the impact these personal sacrifices had (and continue to have) on African-American culture is left to present judgment.