When a play throws a knock-out punch you leave the theatre disturbed, awakened, even tearful and in the case of Fetch Clay, Make Man, satisfied. This play explores Cassius Clay's aka Mohammed Ali's relationship with thirties' comedic actor Stepin Fetchit. At least that's the premise...what happens though is much bigger than their relationship...it is a political play dealing with many of the themes that make Americans uncomfortable: racism, power and religion.
Writer Will Power uses the relationship to explore political assassinations (Malcolm X), personal transformations (be that opportunistic or not) and the need to win. Ali uses the old comedian FetchIt, actor K. Todd Freeman with his sly and desperate eyes, to try and learn the secret punch of a boxer Jack Johnson while Fetchit hopes to use Ali to get back into show business. But mutual exploitation plays a secondary role to dogma, in this case, The Nation of Islam, which at least in this play, uses everyone. Years of Black belittlement gives the characters strong reasons for rage...but unlike Mandela, awareness doesn't liberate them Only the character of Ali's wife, played beautifully by Nikki M. James, understands that true power is in loving...but her wisdom falls on deaf ears, except for Fetchit, who can only observe from the side.
Ray Fisher as Ali is a locomotive with a sweetness that makes the sly machinations by Brother Rashid, excellent John Earl Jelks, hard to watch. Richard Masur plays William Fox, in flashbacks, and to the credit of the writer and director Des McAnuff, doesn't work up anti-Semitic sweat. He tells the story of old Hollywood -- a fake place where everyone wears a mask, Sadly for Fetchit, his play on shiftless, eventually works against him leaving him only an Uncle Tom reputation.
I would like to have seen more of Fetchit's routines because they are brilliant. If he hadn't been black, would his lazy character have been criticized as a traitor ...what of Chaplin's often desperate tramp? History dealt Fetchit a blow... he played the clown; unfortunately when he wanted to try other characters, racism and more likely the box office wouldn't permit it.
And then there's the parallel story with Ali. The poet god brought to ill health from so many blows to his beauitiful head as the money people and users rave on.
The staging and background video fill out the place of this story and the music, by Justin Ellington, lends itself to the choreographed movements of both Fetchit and Ali.
As Ali practices the long wished for secret punch that worked for Johnson , the power of rage flows through his arms and out to us. We are hit in our hearts with all that palpable pain.