“Fetch Clay, Make Man” at the Kirk Douglas

The subject of unlikely friendships is always intriguing (however will this cat and dog get along?), and none seems more unlikely than the friendship between boxing legend Muhammad Ali and early black movie star Stepin Fetchit. In the early 1960s, Ali was a rising talent and a famous convert to the Nation of Islam whereas Fetchit (his real name was Lincoln Perry) was in decline due to his earlier film performances being decried as racist caricature and was also a lifelong Catholic. And yet there is evidence of their friendship, and Will Power decided to write a play about it called Fetch Clay, Make Man. The current production at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, ably directed by Debbie Allen, is a fascinating look at these very different men, and features great acting from its entire ensemble.

In 1965, Muhammad Ali (Ray Fisher) is set to fight Sonny Liston for a second time. He’s aggravated his National of Islam minder, Brother Rashid (Wilkie Ferguson III), by asking to meet with old film actor Stepin Fetchit (Edwin Lee Gibson). Rashid sees Fetchit’s portrayals as insulting to all African Americans, but Fetchit contends that he was the first black Hollywood actor to be a star and that he was subverting racism by using its tropes against it. That isn’t Ali’s concern, however. Fetchit was good friends with famed black boxer Jack Johnson, and he wants any advice that could help him win the fight against Liston, especially anything about the possibly mythical “anchor punch” that could knock down any opponent.

Photo credit: Craig Schwartz Photography

Fisher is superb as the cocky and charismatic Ali, capturing both his public swagger and private uncertainty in a bravura performance. Gibson is equally great as the downtrodden Fetchit, who hopes to restart his acting career, striking in scenes in which he recreates Fetchit’s old routines or in a moment in which he recites some of Langston Hughes’ writing with great dignity. Ferguson is memorably good as the conflicted Rashid, exuding frustration and menace, and Alexis Floyd is terrific as Ali’s rebellious wife, Sonji.

Director Allen gets rich, detailed work from her cast, creating compelling drama from what in lesser hands could just be a historical footnote. Sibyl Wickersheimer’s office set is a bit bland and empty, but Pablo N. Molina’s colorful projections mitigate that effect somewhat. Power’s play is interesting for several reasons, but mainly in how it demonstrates that everyone here is attempting to manipulate the others for their own ends, even if in well-intentioned ways – it’s a power struggle. His take on Fetchit is evenhanded, and the line he gives to the man is a good one: “I snuck through the back door so you could walk through the front.”

Photo credit: Craig Schwartz Photography

Fetch Clay, Make Man is presented by Center Theatre Group at the Kirk Douglas Theatre and plays through Sunday, July 16, 2023. Tickets are available here.

Terry Morgan


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