Posted in Cassius Clay, Fox Studios, Lincoln Perry, Liston-Ali Fight, Muhammed Ali, Stepin Fetchit, The Nation of Islam, Will Power

When Cassius Became Muhammed

Nikki M. James as Sonji Clay, K. Todd Freeman as Stepin Fetchit, Ray Fisher as Muhammad Ali, and John Earl Jelks as Brother Rashid in Will Power’s “Fetch Clay, Make Man,” at NYTW. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Image is more about politics than substance. How you present yourself is not necessarily who you are.

Unless of course, you’re Muhammad Ali, for whom the image was a sincere reflection of who he was. In Will Power’s drama, “Fetch Clay, Make Man,” at the New York Theatre Workshop through October 13th, while everyone around him may be cynical, Ali (Ray Fisher) is earnest in all his beliefs and his desire to be a shining example of the best a black man can be.

Ray Fisher is Muhammad Ali and K. Todd Freeman is Stepin Fetchit in Will Power’s “Fetch Clay, Make Man,” at NYTW. Photo by Joan Marcus.

So why did this proud and powerful black man invite Stepin Fetchit  (K. Todd Freeman), a man whose comedy portrayed a shuffling Negro servant, to his training camp. Stepin Fetchit seems like an odd associate for Ali to bring into his inner circle right before his second bout with Sonny Liston.

Power’s tale is based in truth, however, and Ali did invite Step to his training camp in Maine in 1965. While Will Power and Wikipedia have quite different views on the genesis of the relationship, Power’s story is a much-researched and nuanced look.

In “Fetch Clay, Make Man,” Muhammad Ali is far more mercurial than Step, whose ambition is to clear his name of the blemish it bears. Co-opting the character of a shiftless Negro was Lincoln Perry’s act of subversion. He was obliged to stay in character his whole life, however, and at the end he was famously Stepin Fetchit.

K. Todd Freeman as Stepin Fetchit with Richard Mazur as William Fox in “Fetch Clay, Make Man,” at NYTW.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

“No no no, look I know your real name.  But to the world you are Stepin Fetchit.  Now and forever,” William Fox (Richard Mazur) tells him in one of the flashbacks to the Hollywood of the ’20s and ’30s.
“You’re Stepin Fetchit.  And when you talk like this in the New York Times, speaking of your fondness for concert recitals, Step you confuse the people….” Playing to the stereotype was Stepin Fetchit’s way to turn the prejudice on its head.

Ray Fisher as Ali and Nikki M. James as Sonji Clay in NYTW’s production of “Fetch Clay, Make Man.”
Photo by Joan Marcus

Muhammad’s wife Sonji Clay (Nikki M. James) is delighted to meet him.”Your father liked his movies?,” Ali says. “He did.  And he would always talk about ‘em.  How you made him laugh his head off when you would act lazy, you know so you didn’t have to do the white man’s dirty work,” Sonji says. “But still get paid for it,” Step retorts. Concerned with his legacy and eager to rekindle his career, Step hopes to use his association with Ali to change perceptions.

“And see I’m tryin’ to tell people that that’s not who I am, I ain’t the enemy.  But I ain’t about to pick up no gun, or put on no bow tie,” Step tells Sonji, “that ain’t me.  I fight on the screen, that’s my battlefield.  And pretty soon, I’m gonna go back there and take back my title, as the greatest negro picture star that ever lived.”

John Earl Jelks as Brother Rashid with Nikki M. James as Sonji Clay in “Fetch Clay, Make Man,” at the NYTW through October 13th. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Lots of fancy footwork goes into Fisher’s portrayal. Literally and theatrically. He is Ali. Freeman’s Step is a dignified man who has played the clown too long. Nikki M. James is completely lovable as Sonji, Ali’s first wife. His betrayal of her is disappointing, but the Nation of Islam have him enthrall. He is an acolyte and Sonji is a victim of Ali’s orthodoxy. John Earl Jelks is also excellent, rounding out the cast as Ali’s body guard from the Nation of Islam, Brother Rashid. Jelks reserved thuggishness is a study in disciplined militancy.

Will Power’s “Fetch Clay, Make Man” is a smart, well-written portrait of a man whose life has charmed his fans and detractors. Well, really it’s a thoughtfully-written, portrait of two very different men whose lives have charmed and entertained.

For more information about “Fetch Clay, Make Man,” go to the New York Theatre Workshop website.