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A fascinating, little-known historical episode is explored to arresting if not particularly deep effect in Will Power’s new drama about the unlikely friendship between Muhammad Ali and African-American screen icon Stepin Fechit. Set in 1965 when Ali was preparing for his famed rematch with Sonny Liston, Fetch Clay, Make Man delivers enough theatrical fireworks to compensate for its thematic weaknesses. This crowd-pleasing production by the New York Theatre Workshop seems a strong candidate for a Broadway transfer.
As the play would have it, Ali (Ray Fisher), by then firmly entrenched in the Nation of Islam, enlisted Fechit (K. Todd Freeman), whose real name was Lincoln Perry, to serve as his “secret strategist” for the big bout. Spurring his unlikely entreaty is the fact that Fechit was once a close friend of the legendary boxer Jack Johnson, with Ali desperate to know the secret behind Johnson’s supposedly devastating “anchor punch.”
The by-then elderly Fechit is wary of taking on this unlikely role even as he longs to reclaim his place in the spotlight and correct people’s perceptions of him as a shuffling, lazy Negro. Adding to his reluctance is the constant presence of such ominous Nation of Islam figures as Ali’s ever-present right-hand man, Brother Rashid (John Earl Jenks).
The play begins in startling fashion, with Fechit left alone with Ali in his dressing room, only to be physically threatened by the fighter for having demeaned the image of black people with his stereotypical screen persona. But it all turns out to be a joke, and a relieved Fechit agrees to become a part of Ali’s entourage.
The playwright fleshes out his rather thin premise with various subplots, the main one being Ali’s relationship with his then-wife Sonji (Nikki M. James, a Tony Award winner for The Book of Mormon), who converted to Islam to please her husband. But when Fechit immediately recognizes that her religious convictions are less than sincere, it prompts her to rebel in various ways, such as shedding her traditional Muslim garb in favor of the sexy, tight dresses she used to wear.
There are also periodic flashbacks to Fechit’s early Hollywood days in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, when he was one of the biggest stars of what was then known as Fox Studios. The scenes depicting his sometimes tense negotiations with founder William Fox (a terrific Richard Masur), in which it’s revealed that Fechit was in fact a smart, savvy figure who handled his own business dealings while pretending to have a white lawyer, are among the play’s highlights.
The play’s weakness is its rambling, digressive narrative which strains to find the deeper meanings to which it obviously aspires. Running nearly two-and-a-half hours, it feels unnecessarily attenuated. But its flaws are overcome by its incisive characterizations, crackling dialogue and generous doses of dark humor.
Director Des McAnuff has staged the piece in vibrantly theatrical, fast-paced fashion, making frequent use of Peter Nigrini’s effective projections to depict its historical setting. And he’s elicited superb performances all around. Fisher powerfully conveys Ali’s charisma, humor and bluster while subtly revealing his underlying insecurities. Freeman, although technically too young for the role, is superb as Fechit, making clear his wily intelligence, wounded pride and burning desire to reshape his legacy. James’s Sonji is a dazzling mixture of sexiness and steeliness, and Jelks brings an impressive intensity to the menacing Rashid.
Venue: New York Theatre Workshop, New York City (through Oct. 13)
Cast: Ray Fisher, K. Todd Freeman, Anthony Gaskins, Nikki M. James, John Earl Jelks, Richard Masur, Jeremy Tardy.
Director: Des McAnuff
Playwright: Will Power
Scenic designer: Riccardo Hernandez
Costume designer: Paul Tazewell
Lighting designer: Howell Binkley
Sound designer: Darron L. West
Original music: Justin Ellington
Projection designer: Peter Nigrini
Presented by the New York Theatre Workshop
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