Power is an illusion in Will Power’s startling play Fetch Clay, Make Man, now running at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles. All the characters believe they have control of their destinies, but each is desperate to break free from someone’s influence — even Muhammad Ali, marvelously played by Ray Fisher. Under Debbie Allen’s taut direction, Fetch Clay, Make Man makes us feel like these characters are in a boxing ring battling for their dignity.
In 1965, Malcolm X has just been assassinated. His friend Muhammad Ali preps for his second match with Sonny Liston and begs for that extra spark to finish off his opponent. He calls in Stepin Fetchit (Edwin Lee Gibson), a disgraced vaudeville and movie star, whose persona promoted the vilest of Black stereotypes, to guide Ali, since Fetchit was once a dear friend of the late heavyweight champion Jack Johnson. Fetchit’s arrival incenses the Nation of Islam, whose members “protect” Ali, and creates cracks in his marriage to Sonji Clay (Alexis Floyd).
Power’s play focuses on respect, with Brother Rashid (Wilkie Ferguson III), who is tasked with “guarding” Ali, and Fox Studios owner William Fox (Bruce Nozick) deciding who gets it. The Nation sees Fetchit as beneath them and as a dangerous influence on Ali, who is also an unwitting puppet for the Nation, building up their reputation at his own expense.
The performances are extraordinary. Gibson slides in and out of the role that once confined Fetchit in a box, with his wobbly voice, slumped posture, and distracted eyes, but it’s clearly a façade to disarm others into mistaking him for slow-minded. Both the script and Gibson’s sly performance make it clear that Fetchit was typically the smartest person in any room. Gibson depicts a pride that Fetchit deserved and craved, which becomes an Achilles heel.
Fisher commands the stage as the intense, dynamic, and boastful Ali. He projects a magnetism while also a naive trust in those who ultimately betray him. Floyd is striking as the woman who fell for Cassius Clay, only to be stuck married to Muhammad Ali. Floyd illustrates the conflict between Sonji’s desperate love for Ali and her despairing need to be her authentic self, to the consternation of the image-conscious Nation.
Ferguson has the intricate role of Ali’s bodyguard, who frustratedly takes guff, biding his time to strike at everyone’s insecurities and flaws. Nozick isn’t given enough time in his role, and merely serves to illustrate Fetchit’s precarious state in the early film days, but still gives a strong portrayal of the cocky, racist studio head who doesn’t know he’s about to fall off the cliff of history.
Allen wisely keeps the tensions strong by staging everyone in confined spaces. Even in private, there’s always someone looking on, plotting a next move. The set by Sibyl Wickersheimer, with black metallic walls that light up to reveal a shower and gym through scrims, is chic and slick. Sara Ryung Clement costumes include a drab, unpressed suit for Fetchit to contrast with Rashid’s crisp uniform, as well as several stylish short skirts for Sonji.
Fetch Clay, Make Man focuses on a specific period in the life of a celebrity but raises universal concerns about oppression and decency. It’s a sad commentary on what separates us when it should bond us and couldn’t be timelier in 2023.