“Fetch Clay, Make Man” at the New York Theatre Workshop (Closed October 13, 2013)

September 24, 2013 | Off-Broadway | Tags:
By Will Power
Directed by Des McAnuff
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

The ancient Mesopotamians, the ancient Egyptians, the African peoples of Silluk and Pangwe, the Amerindians, the Karens of Burma, and the Incas all have folkloric tales about the creation of humans from clay, earth, or mud. Their deities, in short, fetched clay and made humankind. Will Power’s “Fetch Clay, Make Man” chronicles the making of the man Muhammad Ali from the clay of companionship with Hollywood star Stepin Fetchit. Both men were unpopular at the time of Ali’s 1965 contest with Sonny Liston in Lewiston, Maine. Critics complained that Lincoln Perry’s Stepin Fethit – “the laziest man in the world” – was not only racist but ultimately subversive. Critics affirmed that Ali’s ego and bravado were not what the African American community needed or wanted.

This lack of popularity made these two extraordinary men the perfect pair of fighters: Lincoln Perry wanted to make a movie to authenticate himself as an actor and Ali wanted to gain the respect of not only his community but the world.

“Fetch Clay, Make Man” is an impressive extended metaphor for creation: the creation of nation-states; the creation of humankind; and the creation of a personal or corporate image. This remarkable play also proffers what is needed to accomplish that creation. In order to know what it means to “win,” Lincoln Perry admonishes Ali that he needs to know what it means “to lose, so you see it, know it, and rule over it.” Creation, after all, is ultimately about “having dominion” over that which is created. And having dominion requires deep and enduring honesty. One cannot wear disguises: “If you wear a mask long enough,” proclaims Lincoln Perry, “you cannot take it off.”

The “classroom” for these lessons on creation takes place on Riccardo Hernandez’ glaringly white set, even further brightened by Howell Binkley’s spot-on lighting. Ali’s dressing room becomes the boxing ring where he and Perry exchange one phantom punch after another and in the process discover they “do not always learn the lessons [they] want to learn.” It is on this set that Ray Fisher (Muhammad Ali), K. Todd Freeman (Stepin Fetchit), John Earl Jelks (Brother Rashid), Richard Masur (William Fox), and Nikki M. James (Sonji Clay) deliver distinguished performances.

The disparate conversations of their characters, more surreal than corporeal, transcend religion, nation-state and politics and focus on the deeper issues of relationship and personhood. The actors tear into Will Power’s script and expose the glaring differences between the white majority and the black minority. Brothers Jacob and David X (Anthony Gaskins and Jeremy Tardy respectively) tread their narrow black paths as they surround, exit, and enter the white playing space of Ali’s anteroom.

The only difference between the ancient creation myths and Mr. Power’s myth of the making of a man is that his creation has an audience surrounding the playing area on three sides, each member of the audience having a unique point of view. Muhammad Ali wanted desperately to learn how Lincoln Perry survived a lifetime of setbacks. Unfortunately, old masks, the concern for nation-states, and issues of race won out. Perry leaves Ali’s side and the “great” and “pretty” Ali finds his own way to success and championship.

See “Fetch Clay, Make Man” before it closes on October 13th. Will Power’s “Fetch Clay, Make Man” delivers a phantom punch that pierces the mind, body, and spirit of the audience. It is a knock out.