Despite premiering thirteen years ago, Will Power’s Fetch Clay, Make Man — a focused narrative about the relationship between Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Clay) and the controversial comedian Stepin Fetchit (real name Lincoln Perry) — is more gripping and relevant today than it has ever been, as it transfixes with significant themes on friendship, religion, racism, sexism, social masks, survival, and redemption, to name a few. On opening night, a filled-to-capacity crowd at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre roared with approval as it acknowledged not only some of the most perspicacious writing ever actualized on a stage, but five otherworldly performers who collectively have the talent of fifty, a wildly successful directorial debut for Emmy Award-winner Debbie Allen, and SpringHill Company’s (founded by LeBron James and Maverick Carter) first of many theatrical endeavors. Attendees, who might be drawn to Ali and his boxing prowess, will get what they bargained for and more when they’re enriched by a flurry of insightful messages through July 16th in Culver City.
Power’s intricate and beautiful based-on-a-true story script takes place in May 1965 — the setting predominantly in Lewiston, ME — a few days before Ali vs. Sonny Liston II (the match was moved to Lewiston for security reasons following Malcom X’s recent murder). After defeating Liston in their first bout, Ali realizes his opponent will be better prepared and has thus summoned Fetchit for one very particular reason — because the vaudevillian was close to the first-ever Black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, who purportedly let Fetchit in on how he (Johnson) delivered his hallowed “anchor punch,” a technique Ali is determined to uncover.
Consequently, Fetchit, who is also spotlighted in flashbacks to the late 1920s/early 30s where he negotiates with Fox Films founder William Fox, becomes Ali’s “secret strategist” in spite of being vilified by the Black community for having perpetuated his “lazy” persona. Further adding to the drama is that Ali’s right-hand man and staunch Nation of Islam (NOI) member, Brother Rashid, doesn’t try to hide his dislike of Fetchit. On the other hand, Ali’s first wife, Sonji, likes the former Tinseltown star but finds herself at odds with Ali’s relatively newfound conversion and affiliation with the NOI, which is being implicated by some as the cause of X’s assassination. This revelation may also urgently concern Ali if he fails to spread the teachings of NOI-leader Elijah Muhammad.
Allen directs her cast with a measured pacing and purposefulness that maximizes each scene, which is a skill that even experienced directors are still learning. Justice League star Ray Fisher, who stunned as Ali in the 2013 Off-Broadway run, reprises his role as the “Greatest of All Time,” seamlessly invoking Ali’s speech patterns, body language, and bravado with a natural flair. Appearing to be carved in granite, Fisher’s physical discipline comes through in spades as does his dedication to channeling Ali’s quick-witted way with words and using non-verbal cues to complete a more captivating picture.
One example of the iconic boxer’s personability is when Fisher’s Ali dramatically acts out the potential of losing to Liston in an effort to get into Jack Johnson’s headspace of accounting and controlling for all possibilities. Here, Fisher takes his time with each beat and line, waiting for the audience to catch up with him and hang on every hilarious word. Additionally, Fisher’s depiction masterfully conveys Ali’s slight misgivings about his new faith and the genuineness of those around him. As the play recounts, while Ali often spoke blusteringly in public, he was good-natured at heart, and believed all Blacks should be supported regardless of their beliefs; however, driven as he was to placate the Nation of Islam, he may have forgotten who his authentic friends/family were and relinquished more power than he wanted to within his social circle.
Wilkie Ferguson III gives a stellar performance as the suit and bowtie-clad Rashid, whose conversion and devotion to the NOI has yielded a man who feels he must always be earnest and speak stiltedly to perhaps expunge a past he is not proud of. And although the audience might infer that he is in a servile capacity with respect to Ali, Rashid is deceptively influential, indicating tacit threats, like a quasi handler. Ferguson III affects strongly resolute characterizations as it pertains to Rashid’s opposition and disgust, even in the face of an exposed hypocrisy, which makes clashes with Fetchit and Sonji all the more impactful.
Alexis Floyd, who has starred in Grey’s Anatomy and Inventing Anna, gives Sonji a deserved zeal and self-awareness about who she really is, liberated from concealment via religion and the proffering of an image that is antithetical to her inner self; nevertheless, her self-expression is met with sexism. Floyd crackles with a resplendent energy and confidence any time she’s highlighted, removing the veil of self-deception and exhorting Fisher’s Ali as well as Ferguson III’s Rashid to do the same. In lighter moments, Floyd effortlessly illustrates Sonji’s more comfortable and sensual side during romantic exchanges with her onstage husband.
Edwin Lee Gibson is an absolute tour de force as Fetchit in a rendering so layered and nuanced that it should be in the running for performance of the year. The superlatively experienced actor, who also helped develop how the Catholic Fetchit should be played, exemplifies why Powers has entrusted him with the material. Gibson’s instincts do the inscrutable Fetchit a great justice with laughs as well as poetic words that ring astutely, and sharp-edged truths that penetrate the consciousness.
Although Fetchit became the first Black actor to receive a screen credit, and earn $1 million, he was maligned as a traitor by his own community for perpetuating the notion that Blacks were frivolous and flippant, oblivious to the asymmetry of power between themselves and whites. Through Gibson, we retroactively learn of Fetchit’s original intentions, as if Fetchit himself was reincarnated on stage and had the opportunity to set the record straight on how he has been incorrectly perceived over the years.
Powered by Gibson’s remarkable expressions, we understand that Fetchit was more than just a shuffler; he knew Hollywood was racist and did what he could to survive and make his career work within the confines afforded to him — sometimes pushing the boundaries as much as he could. The real man was tasked with playing the character of Fetchit for so long that the human being behind the fictionalized visage, Lincoln Perry (as told by the medium of Gibson) opines, “When you wear a mask for too long, you can’t take it off.” This dichotomy between Fetchit and Perry is explored fascinatingly by Gibson who, with an impressive flip of the switch, oscillates from the complaisant and wispy-breathed early Hollywood star to the assertively voiced Perry who, in a back-and-forth with Ali, resonantly exclaims, “I snuck in through the backdoor so you could walk through the front.” And just when we think we’ve seen everything in Gibson’s toolbox, he reinvents himself again, though not as Fetchit/Perry, but by stepping into Jack Johnson’s shoes in a mesmerizing scene.
As previously alluded to, we witness how much smarter Perry/Fetchit was, more than history gives him credit for, during intermittent recalls to William Fox’s office where Perry knows and seeks out his worth as a commodity. Culver City resident Bruce Nozick brings the film industry executive, whose namesake is all over media to this day, to life. Nozick is highly effective at making Fox antagonistic but also interestingly sympathetic in a monologue explaining how he “chose to be white,” given that his Hungarian immigrant origins were mired in struggle and destitution.
Last, but not least, the presentation of Fetch Clay, Make Man is gorgeously immersive thanks to Sibyl Wickersheimer’s raised stage design, brick walls, mirrors, and arrayed punching bags, including behind translucent screens that double as surfaces reflecting Pablo N. Molina’s crisp projections of the actual historic figures who inspired the play. Tom Ontiveros’ lighting makes Fisher’s Ali seem like the indisputably larger-than-life hero he was to millions; Sara Ryung Clement’s costumes, namely Fetchit’s blue coat and off-white pants, tell little accounts of their own; and Lindsay Jones’ sound design and composition engross with a pulsing percussion and hypnotic religious chanting.
Overall, Power’s Fetch Clay, Make Man receives the highest recommendation for saying as many meaningful things as it does in merely two hours, challenging the audience’s preconceived notions about its characters and courageously delving into the depths of their humanity. Not everything is cut and dry, as there are myriad facets to every person whose aggregate of values could be in harmony or more likely inconsonant with one another. When people are viewed through this objective lens, some legacies are reconfirmed and some are suitably reexamined. This is especially true for celebrities, as this play asks us if we’re always seeing the full picture or seeing what “they” want us to see.
For more information on Fetch Clay, Make Man at the Kirk Douglas Theatre (through July 16th), and to purchase tickets, please visit centertheatregroup.com