(“Fetch Clay, Make Man” plays for a limited run at the Marin Theatre Company from August 14 through September 7, 2012).
1965 was a historically significant year in Afro-American history. Martin Luther King was organizing for voters’ rights in Alabama. Malcolm X had been assassinated after leaving the Black Muslims and forming his own Organization for Afro-American Unity. Many believed he was killed by Muslim loyalists who felt he had betrayed them. Not long after, King and his peaceful followers marching in Selma, Alabama were viciously attacked by Alabama state troopers and local police with tear gas and billy clubs. Later would come the Watts riots and the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
It was in this context that young Cassius Clay had become a Black Muslim, changing his name to Cassius X. Later, when he beat champion fighter Sonny Liston in a fight in Miami Beach in 1964, he declared himself “the greatest” and the Muslims honored him with the name Mohammad Ali. Months later, in February of 1965, Ali and Liston were scheduled for a rematch in Lewiston, Maine.
The out of the way location was selected because organizers feared that followers of Malcolm X, believing the Muslims were responsible for his death, would attempt to take vengeance by assassinating Ali in turn. It was thought that a rural location would be safer.
Will Power’s fascinating play is set in the training gym in Lewiston, in February of 1965, where Ali is preparing for the rematch, trying to keep his focus on the fight, while his Muslim handlers worry about keeping him safe. Ali is nervous: he knows Liston is training hard, and he has the added pressure of surrounding events to keep him on edge. He then does something unexpected: he invites, of all people, the movie actor Stepin Fetchit to visit him at the gym. He wants to meet Stepin Fetchit because the actor had been a close friend of a previous Black boxer, Jack Johnson, and Ali wants to pump Stepin Fetchit for memories of the great man. He particularly hopes to learn about Johnson’s legendary “anchor punch”, and to glean inspiration and advice that will him him defend the championship.
The public image of the two men could not be more different: Ali is the epitome of Black power; Stepin Fetchit’s movie persona as “the laziest man in the world” is the essence of Black humiliation and shame. Stepin Fetchit, once the most successful Black actor of his day, the first to receive screen credit at a time when Black movie actors were all anonymous, had become a despised figure of ridicule.
Playwright Power uses the conversation of these two men to effectively explore themes of identity and self-knowledge, power and weakness, ambition and despair, pride and prejudice. Power is a fine writer, and he presents two fascinating and articulate characters whose stories intrigue and engage us.
Director Derick Sanders and his design team present the setting of the training gym as a small space hemmed in by a massive brick wall, upon which is projected video of historic events, as well as some of Stepin Fetchit’s movie performances. The effect is to make us feel the way in which the weight of history is pressuring the two men. Kudos to the excellent design work of Courtney O’Neill (set), Colin Bills (lights), and Caite Hevner Kemp (video).
Eddie Ray Jackson is truly charismatic as the great Ali, and does a fine job of capturing some of Ali’s idiosyncratic physicality, moving in ways that remind us of the boxer in his prime. Fans should be pleased. As Stepin Fetchit, Roscoe Orman does a dead-on perfect impersonation, especially when demonstrating the actor’s film persona. Orman has performed in a one man show about Stepin Fetchit for many years, and he clearly has mastered the character to a tee. As Brother Rashid, the Black Muslim assigned to protect Ali, Jefferson A. Russell is particular good. He beautifully captures the manner of a true believer, while still showing the complexities, doubts and rich inner life of a man who would give unhesitant loyalty to a cult. Katherine Renee Turner is lovely as Sonji Clay, and Robert Sicular is consistently interesting as movie mogul William Fox.
“Fetch Clay, Make Man” is an enteratining and thought provoking play that sticks with the viewer
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“Fetch Clay, Make Man” by Will Power. Co-produced by Marin Theatre Company and Round House Theatre, Maryland. Director: Derick Sanders. Scenic Designer: Courtney O’Neill. Lighting Designer; Colin Bills. Costume Designer: Heidi Leigh Hanson. Sound Designer: Christopher Baine. Video Designer: Caite Hevner Kemp.
Stepin Fetchit: Roscoe Orman. Muhammad Ali: Eddie Ray Johnson. Brother Rashid: Jefferson A. Russell. William Fox: Robert Sicular. Sonji Clay: Katherine Renee Turner.
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