Fetch Clay, Make Man

Critics' pick
1/6
Photograph: Joan Marcus
Fetch Clay, Make Man
2/6
Photograph: Joan Marcus
Fetch Clay, Make Man
3/6
Photograph: Joan Marcus
Fetch Clay, Make Man
4/6
Photograph: Joan Marcus
Fetch Clay, Make Man
5/6
Photograph: Joan Marcus
Fetch Clay, Make Man
6/6
Photograph: Joan Marcus
Fetch Clay, Make Man

Fetch Clay, Make Man. New York Theatre Workshop (see Off Broadway). By Will Power. Directed by Des McAnuff. With K. Todd Freeman, Ray Fisher, Nikki M. James. Running time: 2hrs 10mins. One intermission.

Fetch Clay, Make Man: in brief

Will Power (Flow, The Seven) returns to NYTW with a drama about the unlikely bond between two black icons of different generations: the explosively charismatic boxer Muhammad Ali and the evanescent, now-vilified comic actor Stepin Fetchit. Des McAnuff directs.

Fetch Clay, Make Man: theater review by Adam Feldman

“When you wear a mask for so long, you can’t take it off,” says Stepin Fetchit (Freeman, magnetically sly) in Will Power’s compelling Fetch Clay, Make Man, and he would know. In the 1920s and ’30s, Fetchit was one of the most popular comic actors in film, and the first African-American star to get screen credit on a Hollywood picture. But that credit was actually the name of the shuffling, shiftless character he played. (He was born Lincoln Perry—no relation to Tyler.) By 1965, when Power’s biodrama is set, Fetchit was considered an embarrassment to the emerging black empowerment movement iconified in the gorgeous form of cocky young boxing champ Cassius Clay, then in the process of changing his own name to Muhammad Ali (the fluid Fisher). Yet for a time the two men were on friendly terms, and Fetchit served as a “secret strategist” for Ali’s second bout with Sonny Liston.

This is rich fodder for drama, and Power surrounds his central figures with variations on his themes of control, identity and representation. Ali’s wife, Sonji (the adorable James), is a former cocktail waitress who balks at playing the demure Muslim spouse; his imposing Nation of Islam handler, Rashid (John Earl Jenks), was once a pimp; Fetchit’s studio boss, William Fox (Richard Masur, juicily chomping cigars and scenery), is an immigrant Jew turned magnate. Staged for maximum punch by Des McAnuff, Fetch Clay, Make Man doesn’t fully explore the Ali-Fetchit connection; it seems driven by ideas more than by people. But Power lays them out with satisfying complexity, and the play’s crash of symbols has lingering resonance.—Theater review by Adam Feldman

Follow Adam Feldman on Twitter: @FeldmanAdam

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