Fetch Clay, Make Man

by Richard Hinojosa · September 15, 2013

Playwrights on New Plays #1: Richard Hinojosa looks at Will Power's new play at New York Theatre Workshop

Some people work within a system while others work around it.  Everyone has their role to play.  Mohammed Ali, he was going to knock the system on its butt with a quick right jab and hard left cross.  Stepin Fetchit, he was going to make the system work for him by giving the fools what they wanted.  Either way these guys beat the system and paved the way for others to do the same.  Coming from such opposite ends of the system of change, one would not think that the lives of these two extraordinary men would have intersected but they ever so briefly did.  Oh, to be a fly on that wall.  Well, thankfully playwright Will Power gives us some remarkable insight into this chance encounter.

At the top of the show, Ali is preparing to fight Sonny Liston for second time.  He has asked Fetchit to meet with him because he’s looking for an angle in the fight.  Stepin Fetchit is an old Hollywood actor known for playing his signature role, the “laziest man in the world”.  Ali learns that he knew the late, great boxer Jack Johnson.  He wants to find out if Fetchit has any advice he might have picked up from the old champ.  He especially wants to know about the alleged all-powerful “anchor punch” that Johnson used.  As the story unfolds, Ali discovers that he’s conflicted about everything he holds precious in his life.  His new religion and his new wife are all in question and Fetchit is there to offer him some wisdom and perspective.  He’s there to anchor Ali to everyone that came before him so he can throw that punch and knock the system on its butt.

Will Power has written a great character-driven play.  It is funny, poignant and inspirational. His idea of what might have been said by these two characters and those around them during this encounter feels right…a little dramatized, but right.  Filled with contradictions and arrogance, Power’s characters are people who possess as much greatness as they do disgrace.  I was riveted by the conversations between Ali and Fetchit and even though I truly enjoyed the other two major characters, Ali’s new wife Sonji and his man Brother Rashid, I could have listened to the two of them talk all night.  Power and his director Des McAnuff have accomplished a fine achievement here by making this moment in the history of civil rights powerful but not forceful and therefore more accessible.

The cast is amazing.  They carry this play to great heights. Ray Fisher leads with a recreation of Mohammed Ali that is not parody and not an homage but something singularly his own and yet still very recognizable as the flamboyant Ali.  Fisher shows Ali’s vulnerabilities and tenderness along with his "prettiness".  K. Todd Freeman stole me away with his genuine portrayal of a man past his prime who sees what might be his last chance to finally break away from the system that kept him so oppressed for so long.  Freeman’s performance is truly inspired!  Nikki M James is utterly captivating as Sonji.  Her desire for everyone to rip off their masks and just be who they are is palpable.  And John Earl Jelks is excellent as the cold, hard and unbending Brother Rashid.

You may recall the famous photo of a defiant and triumphant Mohammed Ali standing over a stunned Sonny Liston after knocking him out in the first round…well that’s sort of how I felt at the end of Fetch Clay, Make Man.   See it.  Be the fly on the wall.





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