FETCH CLAY, MAKE MAN – A Review By Gadi Elkon

His name was Cassius Clay, but you know him as Muhammad Ali. His name was Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, but you know him as Stepin Fetchit. Or, do you really know either of these men at all? Loosely inspired by the pair’s real-life friendship, DTC Playwright-in-Residence Will Power has crafted a daring script that brings these two iconic figures together to shape their legacies against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement. A powerful exploration of what it is to be a black man in America, Fetch Clay, Make Man pulls no punches.

Here is Gadi Elkon’s review for Dallas Theater Center’s Fetch Clay, Make Man.

DTC Playwright-in-Residence Will Power took his curiosity over a photo to mold a provocative, powerful, and poignant look into the friendship of Stepin Fetchit and Muhammad Ali.  Set in the aftermath of the murder of Malcolm X the production has a heightened awareness to the fear-filled ambiance that clouded Ali’s camp for his rematch with Sonny Liston in 1965.  The play speaks well beyond it’s setting and characters and resonates with all of us today with the fear-filled environment that hangs over our society.  The two acts deal with the build up to fight night.  Act 1 centers around the impact Stepin Fetchit has on all those at Ali’s Maine camp.  Act 2 utilizes the heightened emotions of Act 1 to give us the bubbling conflict of what happened in the days, hours and minutes just before Ali would once again enter the ring.

Director Nataki Garrett and the design team have molded the 6th floor Studio Theater of the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre into the training area of the Greatest.  Projection Designer Rasean Davonte Johnson and Scenic Designer Mariana Sanchez have created a stark white backdrop that acts as the barriers to the outside world as well as the visual projection screens.  These screens are utilized to show real clips and flashback elements that highlight Ali’s journey as well as dive into the world of Jack Johnson, the first African-American Heavyweight champion of the world.  It is Johnson who has brought Fetchit into Ali’s world as the young champ hopes to learn the famous “anchor” punch from the old friend of the former great champion.

Preston Butler III is our Ali and Tyrone L. Robinson is our Stepin.   They are joined by Keith Arthur Bolden as Ali’s Nation of Islam handler Brother Rashid, Shenyse Leanna Harris as Ali’s young beautiful wife Sonji Clay and Bob Reed as former Fox Studio creator William Fox.  The Fox elements are an added dynamic as they are set in Fetchit’s movie days and help mold his full backstory right before our eyes.  The acting is fluid and filled with pure emotion.  Preston especially shines as Ali.  His embodiment is not only physical but in his fun demeanor.  On the press night I went to, the DTC had invited Ali’s real life friend Nancy Lieberman.  In the stay late section that followed the production she summed up Preston’s tremendous performance by saying, “You are Ali, I am amazed at how much you remind me of him.”.  Robinson holds his own and of all the characters does a wonderful job of pulling in the audience the most.  His longing gazes into the beyond of the audience not only show his lost nature but his yearning for someone to fully see him.  Bolden really shines in the second act as his past exploits come to put him in a different light.  Harris’ portrayal of Sonji is the most refreshing element of the play as her youthful desire to be free completely unravels all the other male characters.  Her performance also heightens the unique sexuality that was exploding in the country in the 1960s.  The play’s wonderful dialogue by Power reflects so much the huge divide between the Nation of Islam, White America, Black America and political dynamic of 1965.  A few years removed from JFK’s assassination and mere months from the killing of Malcolm X the play’s setting is it’s own powerful character.  The tension of the times is so reflective of our current racial, gender and political division.  The only difference is we don’t have a flamboyant figure as Ali to keep our minds distracted from the boiling nature of our country.  Thus the resonance of the play hits much harder after viewing since you come to realize just how important Power’s play is about right now and not 1965.

I hope you’ll race to see this production as it’s entertaining exploration into Ali’s world is such a fascinating and compelling look into race, sexuality, fear and acceptance or lack there of.  The play is at DTC through January 13th.

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