Dallas — Everyone knows the name Muhammed Ali—one of the most celebrated athletes of all time and easily a dominant figure in African-American history and culture. Not as many people know the name Cassius Clay, which is who Ali was before converting to Islam and becoming a member of the controversial Nation; and even less are familiar with Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry—the actor better known by his stage moniker “Stepin Fetchit.”
These two figures occupy very distinctly different corners in the annals of African-American history. While Ali is commonly associated with black pride and a radical resistance against a domineering white establishment, Stepin Fetchit is a living paradox—often condemned as a traitor to the race with a legacy of promulgating the lazy black man stereotype throughout the 1920s and 30s, but also the first African-American actor to be given an on-screen credit.
In Will Power’s play Fetch Clay, Make Man, the weaving of narratives of these two very different men, along with a few other crucial characters in their orbits, brings a stark new reality into focus about who they were. The Dallas Theater Center’s production, directed by Nataki Garrett, presents the thematically layered, thought-provoking plot with style and potency.
The show is a hefty collection of subplots, all unfolding against smart imagery and creative setting by scenic designer Mariana Sanchez, sound and projection designer Rasean Davonte Johnson, and lighting designer Jason Lynch. Together, they turn the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre Studio Theatre into an artistically effective space.
Set primarily in a boxing gym in Lewiston, Maine, in May of 1965, the plot circles around an almost mythical bit of martial art—the “anchor punch.” Ali (the dynamic and charming Preston Butler III) is preparing to defend his World Heavyweight Championship title in a rematch fight against Sonny Liston. Having recently joined the Nation, he is closely watched, guarded, and advised by his comrade Brother Rashid, played with seething intensity by Keith Arthur Bolden.
Fetchit, who happened to have intimate knowledge of the “anchor punch” through a close friendship with former heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, is enlisted by Ali as a “secret strategist, much to the chagrin of Brother Rashid. Fetchit (portrayed with a brilliant depth of character and emotion by Tyrone L. Robinson) jumps at the opportunity, hoping to use his association with The Champ as a means of reinventing his public image and setting the record straight about who he truly is. Through transitionally poignant flashbacks into his career in Hollywood, we learn that Lincoln Perry was a man of thoughtful reflection and heartbreaking consequence as he grapples with the unforgiving industry, represented by the snake-like movie producer William Fox (played by the feisty Bob Reed).
In addition, the story sees a dramatic shift of Ali’s love life in the painful waning of his marriage to Sonji, who is given a sultry, almost threatening, magnetism by the beautiful Shenyse Leanna Harris. When first we meet Sonji, she is clad demurely in white robes and a headdress so as to fit the image of a proper Muslim woman of the Nation. However, it isn’t long before she casts off her costume in an attempt to live out her true nature with Ali at her side.
At first glance, Power’s script may seem like an African-American story, and in a lot of ways it is. It certainly draws upon many major points of black history in America—the rise of the Nation of Islam, the assassination of Malcolm X, the struggle of disenfranchised communities having equal opportunities of representation, etc. Most poignantly, Power brings attention to the principles of cross-generational progression in the black community. We are forced to give credence to the sacrifices that those who came before us made in order to give us momentum and ever-evolving opportunities for equality.
In a heated, emotionally charged exchange between Ali and Stepin Fetchit, Fetchit sums up this idea with a biting amount of pathos saying, “I snuck in through the back door so you could walk in through the front.”
But sitting just above this thematic layer is a larger, more disturbing, realization in Power’s script. Every character here is a strategist of sorts. With the demanding pressures of the American zeitgeist bearing down on each of them, they seek to use each other for their own aims. William Fox seeks to use Fetchit as an industrial commodity; Sonji Clay uses her husband to escape the grips of her seedy former life; Brother Rashid uses Ali to further the socio-political aims of the Nation; Ali uses Fetchit to learn what he needs to know in order to defeat his opponents in the ring and secure his position as “the greatest”; and Lincoln Perry uses Ali to escape the caged-in persona of Stepin Fetchit and reinvent himself as an artist and public figure.
The principle of self-aggrandizement is an aspect of the African-American experience that is seldom given attention. How the precariously arranged relationships between these characters so easily unravel and implode is emblematic of the choices we make as individuals in the black community. Our autonomous selves are, by nature of our skin tone, always tethered to a looming national identity that still yearns for understanding. It is a chaos that bubbles unseen beneath the surface for all of us, whether we know it or not, and Power’s heavy-handed metaphor of the “anchor punch,” in a way, captures a culminative release of that tension.