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In February of 1964 Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, won his first World Heavyweight crown after Sonny Liston refused to come out of his corner at the start of their fight’s seventh round. The boxers had a rematch clause in their contracts, and Liston’s capitulation to the young upstart (and Olympic champion) raised the spectre of a fixed fight, especially given Liston’s mob connections. The rematch was originally scheduled for November of that year, but delays lasted until May of 1965, in part because Ali had a hernia operation. In between, a lot went down.
Days after the fight with Liston came the revelation Clay joined the Nation of Islam as a convert and a storm of controversy erupted when the movement’s leader, Elijah Muhammad, announced Clay had changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Malcolm X introduced Ali to the Nation and encouraged him to join. Two months after the announcement, X broke with the movement, and was later assassinated in February of 1965 by Nation associates. Rumors of retaliatory death threats began to circulate around Ali, and supposedly even extended to Liston. Promoters didn’t want to touch the fight in lieu of all this, so it was eventually held in an ice rink in the tiny Maine town of Lewiston. On a historical side note, only 2,434 thousand people filled the rink’s 4900 seats, making it the smallest crowd to ever attend a heavyweight championship fight.
A slightly bizarre sideshow took place during all of this when Ali summoned former actor Lincoln Perry, aka Stepin Fetchit, to join him at his training camp in Chicago, and later introduced him during a press conference as his “secret strategist” (two days before Malcolm X’s assassination).
Will Power manipulates the timeline of Ali and Perry’s meeting for dramatic purposes in his thought-provoking, entertaining play Fetch Clay, Make Man, having Ali summon Fetchit just days before the fight in order to learn the secret of Jack Johnson’s “anchor punch,” which Ali believes Perry knows. In doing so, he creates a play that successfully examines both men’s legacies through their individual attempts to succeed as black men in a white man’s world. Power’s play suggests these two trailblazers, misunderstood by many and maligned by more, were two very different men who fought the same fight with different tactics.
Set in Ali’s locker room in Lewiston, with a goon from the Nation named Brother Rashid guarding (and sometimes blocking) the door, Fetchit shows up wondering why he’s been summoned, and as it soon becomes clear, because he has little else to do. The first black film star to become a millionaire was by this time scorned as an Uncle Tom, viewed by many as a traitor to his race for his part in perpetuating some of the worst black stereotypes on the silver screen, or worse, barely remembered, along with the hows and whys of his former success and how much he drove his own career to what was then an unprecedented level of success. The play frames Fetchit’s rise and fall during unobtrusive flashbacks with movie mogul William Fox. In the locker room, once Fetchit learns what Ali wants from him, his old ambition kicks in and he sees a potential opportunity he can play to his own advantage.
Ali has a maelstrom of things to contend with as he prepares for the fight including a wife ill-suited to her new role as a chaste, modest Muslim; pressure from the Nation to act as a mouthpiece for the movement; the fall-out and resulting threats in the aftermath of Malcolm’s assassination; and preparing for a formidable opponent he knows will try to destroy him. Fetchit initially won’t play along, claiming ignorance about Johnson’s secret punch while angling for his own aims, which include using Ali to reboot his film career. But as the men talk, Fetchit also becomes keenly interested in Ali as a person, and as a man, and it’s the development of mutual respect and trust between the two men amid a hostile and potentially explosive environment which forms the satisfying core of the play. The denouement is almost as graceful and satisfying to watch as Ali himself during his prime.
The production currently onstage at Marin Theatre Company boasts a superb cast. Roscoe Orman does a marvelous job of peeling off one layer at a time in revealing the man behind the character of Fetchit in a sharp, masterfully timed performance. Eddie Ray Jackson is a physical marvel as Ali: he’s quick, cut, and it’s easy to imagine him holding hold his own in the ring. Selling the physical part would be enough of a challenge, but he matches that with a portrayal loaded with nuance, empathy and wit. As Clay’s wife Sonji, Katherine Renee Turner smolders and then burns in a magnetic, convincing performance, reminding one of why Ali once said, “My toughest fight was with my first wife.” Jefferson A. Russell is so believable and menacing as the converted thug Brother Rashid I found myself wishing Ali would take him out with a single punch, just like he was about to do to Liston. Robert Sicular did fine work in the smaller role of William Fox.
Derrick Saunders’ taut direction flows smoothly. The set design by Courtney O’Neill works well, as does the video design by Caite Hevner Kemp which effectively frames the action on stage with real images from the time. The costumes by Heidi Leigh Hanson work well, but some budget considerations were observed from the small theater’s second row.