Thursday, February 4, 2010

"Fetch Clay, Make Man," reviewed

“Fetch Clay, Make Man,” currently in its world premiere at McCarter Theatre, is playwright Will Power’s response to a peculiar photograph he happened upon one day in a bookstore. Power was struck instantly by the extraordinary clash of opposites depicted in the photo — Muhammad Ali and Stepin Fetchit, whom the caption reveals as Ali’s “secret strategist,” warmly posing together in the early 1960s. What could the self-proclaimed “Greatest of All Time” possibly want with a disgraced Hollywood actor decades past his prime and long reviled by the African-American community for the humiliating racial caricatures he depicted on screen? Power’s play is a sprawling but intriguing look at precisely that question.

The play centers on the days leading up to the 1965 bout between Muhammad Ali (played commandingly by Evan Parke) and Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight title. Ali has recently changed his name from Cassius Clay and embraced the Nation of Islam, and he travels to Lewiston, Maine, for the fight with a small entourage representative of his newly adopted beliefs — the stone-faced and immutable Brother Rashid (John Earl Jelks), two other brothers in the Nation of Islam (Ray Fisher and Kenric Green) who silently guard Ali throughout the play, and his wife Sonji (Sonequa Martin), dressed in a white veil but less than enthused about her husband’s conversion. Into this serious-minded group bounds Stepin Fetchit (Ben Vereen), aged and world-weary but still in command of his quick wit and zeal for performance and conversation, a worthy verbal sparring partner for the Louisville Lip. Ostensibly, he has been summoned by Ali to provide information about Jack Johnson’s legendary punching techniques, but boxing quickly takes a back seat to an improbable friendship between two men struggling to make sense of life as a black American in the 1960s.

Stepin Fetchit, (Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry’s stage name which is a portmanteau of “Step and Fetch It,”) was Hollywood’s first millionaire black actor, rising to prominence through the sensational popularity of his stock character—a degrading portrait of the African-American worker as lazy, servile, and mentally deficient—with Depression-era white audiences. Vereen’s performance as Fetchit is captivating; a nuanced portrayal of a man who is at times defeated and defiant, boisterous and earnest. We see him caught in a lifelong struggle to disentangle his own life from the demeaning characters he portrayed with such chilling effectiveness during his Hollywood career. Ali, who works to build an identity that satisfies both his own ideals and the exacting standards that the Nation of Islam has for its most prominent member, immediately empathizes with the tension between public and private personas that has haunted Fetchit for decades. In the serene isolation of Ali’s training room, they sit and talk for hours, their meandering conversations always fresh, crisp and plausible. Power’s fluid and natural dialogue effortlessly makes the improbable duo into the confidants they were in real life.

Through Power’s meticulous and sympathetic depiction of Fetchit, we learn much about the intelligent and complex man long obscured by the specter of his screen career. A handful of flashbacks to his meetings with the corpulent, slick-talking, Cuban cigar-smoking William Fox (Richard Masur) vivify the pressure (and alluring material benefits) Fetchit received to keep up his act. By the 1960s, Fetchit is still quick with a joke — prompting hearty laughter, he tells Brother Rashid that forgoing pork is the deal breaker on his conversion to Islam — but also retains a sincere desire to break free from the ridicule and contempt he has been subject to for decades. “I turned shit into gold,” he tells Ali near the end of the play, supremely confident that his early, incremental work paved the way for Ali’s ascendance.

In a choice reminiscent of artistic director Emily Mann’s own documentary dramas, projected images of the real Fetchit and Ali provide an effective backdrop to the action on stage, subtly reminding the audience of the work’s historical underpinnings. The set, a gleaming, modular representation of a boxing training room, is similarly effective. The absence of walls, coupled with the continual wordless presence of the brothers patrolling the perimeter, captures the divide between public and private so central to Power’s message. Seating the audience on three sides of the stage mirrors the configuration of a boxing ring while extending this idea further.

Sadly, Power does add a good deal of filler conflicts to the mix — ranging from Brother Rashid’s disapproval of Fetchit to Ali’s growing concerns for his own safety — that detract from the play’s core. And, the play regrettably concludes just as the repartee between Fetchit and Ali is most tenuous and tense, with an ending as abrupt as Ali’s first-round knockout of Liston in the final scene. Nevertheless, these distracting lapses aside, “Fetch Clay” is a powerful, thought-provoking historical drama that does justice to a wonderful premise.

4 paws

Pros: Great idea for a play brought to life by superb acting

Cons: Script loses focus

-Joseph Dexter '13

"Fetch Clay, Make Man" is showing at McCarter Theater until Feb. 14, 2010.
Photo Courtesy of T. Charles Erickson.

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