This is a nifty bit of playmaking. Will Power has taken a small seed (a photograph of Muhammad Ali and Stepin Fetchit) and had his way with it. Turns out his way is intriguing.
Muhammad Ali (Ray Fisher) is preparing for his second fight with Sonny Liston in Lewiston, Maine. It is 1962, and Ali is a newly minted member of the nation of Islam. This and the fact that he is a boastful poet when it comes to his career pretty much annoys the crap out of everyone. To add some spice to the mix, there is a rumor floating around that the followers of Malcolm X, recently murdered, are on the way to Lewiston to take out Ali on the theory that he, being the most visible person of the Nation of Islam, was involved with Malcolm’s murder.
Muhammad is interested in none of this. His focus is on the fight, and his interest is in the counsel of Stepin Fetchit, AKA Lincoln Perry, (K. Todd Freeman) who was known to have been a friend of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion. Ali believes that Fetchit had the ear of the famous fighter and will be primary source material for what made the great fighter tick.
Fetchit, on the other hand, wants redemption. He is best known for his portrayal of the character for whom he is named, a caricature of the lazy black man who always out witted his bosses. For many this was a character that reinforced everything about racism. In reality, Perry was a man who negotiated his own contracts and was one of the best-paid actors at the time. He was a groundbreaking performer who was never given credit because of his on screen character. No one saw the man behind the myth, and in exchange for strategizing with Ali, he wants to be restored in the eyes of the public.
Not only is this a stretch, it goes against everything that Ali’s handlers are planning. The Nation of Islam, embodied in his chief aide-de-camp, Brother Rashid (John earl Jelks), is the only hope for black people. The teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad must be followed to the letter. Whoever does not go down that path is expendable, including Malcolm X, Ali’s wife Sonji (Nikki M. James), Fetchit (a Catholic) and maybe even Ali himself. Forget the poetry, forget the practical jokes, and forget the boasting and the slogans. Floating like a butterfly means nothing unless it is sanctioned by the Nation.
Ali is caught between these two worlds he himself has brought together. Fetchit is the past that snuck in the back door so you could walk in through the front. Ali is standing on his shoulders. From that position Ali is able to reach out to the Nation of Islam for protection and inspiration. Now each of these two factions wants a piece of him.
Power and McAnuff have created a smooth flowing narrative that can at times be a little too glossy, but the effort makes for some thought provoking theatre. Ray Fisher does a beautiful job as Ali, creating a fully formed man instead of an imitation. K. Todd Freeman’s Fetchit has more of a street fighter’s attitude than that of an aging movie star. In addition he is roughly 15 years younger than his character would have been, and though his acting skills are considerable he is not able to make up for that disparity. Sonji’s shift from Muslim to Mainstream seems to happen in a trice, but her scenes with Ali are written and performed with a crisp and certain eye to their intimacy. And the scenes between William Fox (Richard Massur) and Fetchit have an element of the absurd that is jarring and gives neither actor room for settling down to business.
In spite of these notations, this is still an imaginative and inspiring piece of theatre. At times it is nearly operatic in its desire to reach into dramatic territory that is an iconic part of our history. Although Power tries to pull us into the orbit of Fetchit it is Muhammad Ali who walks away with the match. Ali was and is a man who created his life on his own terms and remained standing, in more ways than one, in the face of adversity, hatred and ignorance. He was and remains one of the greatest.
"An eye-poppingly sleek production. ...Yet the dramatic adrenaline necessary to create a powerful play does not entirely materialize"
Charles Isherwood for New York Times
"Delivers ... a potent and satisfying wallop."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"You stay engaged even when Power’s script loses momentum in the second act."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"The climax of 'Fetch Clay, Make Man' is history, but the tale within is completely absorbing."
Jeremy Gerard for Bloomberg
"Comes up disappointingly short dramatically."
Robert Feldberg for The Record
"Delivers enough theatrical fireworks to compensate for its thematic weaknesses."
Frank Scheck for The Hollywood Reporter
External links to full reviews from popular press...