September 28, 2013
Seeing a bioplay always makes me nervous that what I’m going to get is caricatures instead of characters. Seeing one with my husband K, who hates watching people pretend to be more famous people, makes me even more anxious. And seeing one of these show with K about a person he admires holds the potential to turn me into a basket case.
So I am really relieved to be able to tell you that both K and I were quite taken with Fetch Clay, Make Man, the bioplay about the boxing legend (and one of K's heroes) Muhammad Ali that is playing at New York Theatre Workshop through Oct. 13.
Most people now think of Ali as the beloved icon who appears, bent and silenced by Parkinson's, at national ceremonies. But playwright Will Power has had the good sense to focus his tale on the tense days in May 1965 that surrounded Ali’s historic rematch with Sonny Liston, from whom he’d taken the heavyweight title the year before.
Shortly after that first meeting, the 23-year-old champ became a member of the controversial Nation of Islam and changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, a gesture of racial pride and defiance that bewildered some fans, many of them white, and delighted others, most of them black.
Three months before the second fight, Malcolm X, Ali’s spiritual mentor, had been assassinated after breaking away from the group and because many people suspected that its members had been involved, threats were being made on Ali’s life.
Amidst all this, Ali reached out to an unlikely source for guidance: Stepin Fetchit, the black comedian whose roles in Hollywood movies made his name synonymous with the demeaning stereotype of blacks as dumb and lazy people.
Ostensibly, Ali wants to ask about some boxing strategy that Jack Johnson, the first black man to hold the heavyweight title (and the subject of the bioplay The Great White Hope) may have shared with his friend Fetchit. But what he’s really seeking is a different kind of survival lesson.
Power says he decided to write the play after stumbling across a photo of the two black icons and wondering about the story behind it. He spent three years researching that question and the answer he came up with provides a perceptive look at the masks that black people, even famous ones, had to put on in order to get ahead in the segregated world of mid-century America.
Carrying that message are two superb lead performances. Ray Fisher is as handsome and charismatic as Ali was in his young (“I’m so pretty”) days. And while he deftly mimics all the familiar Ali mannerisms—the bravado, the banter, the dancing steps—Fisher also captures the fear, insecurity and yearning of the young man who believes that Fetchit has secret knowledge that may help him survive. He’s excellent.
In some ways, though, Fetchit is the tougher role. In flashbacks, the comedian, whose real name was Lincoln Perry, is shown to be a smart man, savvy enough to have become Hollywood’s first black millionaire. But by the time he gets the call from Ali, he is widely considered a disgrace to his race and he desperately hopes that the relationship with the young champ will help him reclaim his reputation.
K. Todd Freeman delivers a finely textured performance that captures all the nuances of Fetchit’s wounded pride, seething self-loathing and intense longing to bask again in the spotlight. He's excellent too.
Not everything works as well. Powers crams in a subsidiary plot about the champ’s wife Sonji, played by Nikki M. James, the Tony-winning actress from The Book of Mormon, who loves Ali and likes Fetchit but has doubts about the Nation of Islam, and another about the boxer’s Black Muslim handler Rashid, whose angry-black-man storyline flirts with stereotypes of its own. Both siphon off energy from the main event.
Luckily, director Des McAnuff has put together a slick, fast-moving production, even if he does have the actors shouting too much. Riccardo Hernandez’s stylistic set places the action in a metaphorical boxing ring that Howell Binkley highlights with symbolically glaring white lights. Meanwhile, Peter Nigrini’s projections add a balancing injection of verisimilitude.
It all adds up to a show that may not be a total knockout but still manages to pack a punch—and to redeem the rep of the bioplay.