An electric moment in the thick of the civil rights movement came crackling to life Friday night in the African American Cultural Center’s Paul Robeson Theatre, where Will Power’s play “Fetch Clay, Make Man” is now running in a smart production directed by Laverne Clay.
The show, which adds several layers of historical fiction to the relationship between the great boxer and cultural icon Muhammad Ali (Johnny Rowe) and the groundbreaking if much-maligned actor Stepin Fetchit (Fisher), illuminates one of the central crises of the era and the movement that defined it.
The show is set in the days leading up to Ali’s legendary fight with Sonny Liston in 1965. That historically short fight was depicted in the famous photograph of Ali towering over a defeated Liston, who fell in the first round to one of the most controversial punches in the history of pugilism.
That so-called “anchor punch,” according to legend, was the original property of Fetchit’s close friend, the boxer Jack Johnson. From Johnson it made its way to Fetchit and from Fetchit to Ali – and that is where the show’s fidelity to received history ends and Power’s imagination takes over.
And quite the imagination it is.
In his alternately humorous and at times rhetorically top-heavy story, these two important figures in American history meet at a pivotal moment in the fractured fight for equality. Malcolm X had been assassinated months earlier. Tensions between the Nation of Islam’s leadership and some of its newer members like Ali were high. Within the African American community, an ideological and sometimes physical battle raged over the wisdom and effectiveness of Black Nationalist or integrationist strategies.
In the political sphere, that battle was embodied by Malcolm X on one side and Martin Luther King Jr. on the other. In “Fetch Clay, Make Man,” it takes the form of a battle of wits between recent Nation of Islam recruit Ali and the out-of-work actor Stepin Fetchit, whose stereotypical portrayal of a black man as a shiftless and lazy caricature had broken through one Hollywood race barrier only to reinforce another.
Each man wants something from the other. For Ali, it’s a competitive advantage. For Fetchit, it’s redemption. Ali got what he was after right away. But for Fetchit, redemption was elusive.
If Power’s script can sometimes seem too systematic to set up its characters for grandstanding speeches – a pitfall of many gifted dramatists stretching back to Shaw and earlier – its saving grace is its omnipresent humor and sensitivity to the almost impossible moral challenges its characters faced.
As Ali, Rowe brings much of the braggadocio and intensity you would hope for, delivering Ali’s famous rhymes with gusto and adopting a convincingly Ali-like swagger and bearing. Fisher’s Fetchit, on the other hand, is uneven but shines in certain tremendous moments of clarity that perforate the play. Chief among these is his impression of Jack Johnson, whose graceful movements and basso profundo lend a deep sense of poetry and history to the evening.
As Ali’s irritable bodyguard Rashid, Leon Copeland delivers about 300 different shades of glowering and exasperation, but almost always undergirded by humor. And Courtney Turner, as Ali’s wife Sonji Clay, more than holds her own as a strong figure who refuses to sacrifice her strength and individuality to the stringent demands of the Nation of Islam.
In a series of flashbacks to Fetchit’s early days in Hollywood, Joseph G. Giambra gives an affable performance as studio head William Fox, who – like every character in Power’s drama – embodies elements of hero and villain.
All of this unfolds on Harlan Penn’s grittily perfect set and under Nathan Elsnener’s sensitive lighting design, which together give added weight and meaning to the play’s most memorable lines. Among them is this one, uttered by a discouraged Fetchit minutes before Ali walks into the ring:
“I snuck in the back door so you could walk through the front.”