Watching Will Power‘s play Fetch Clay, Make Man is testimony to the fact that representation does indeed matter. Yes, that is an overused phrase in Hollywood and in the realms of diversity, equity and inclusion in various work sectors, but with Fetch Clay, Make Man, it hits in an elevated way that makes one interrogate their own ego and navigate it as it intersects their identity.
Fetch Clay, Make Man, which first made its debut in 2010 at the McCarter Theater Center in New Jersey, tells the story of the unlikely friendship between two Black icons: boxer Muhammed Ali and Hollywood legend Stepin Fetchit. Set in the 1960s during the Civil Rights movement, we have two very different cultural icons interacting and occupying the same space. Loosely based on their friendship, Fetch Clay, Make Man follows the pair as they form a bond in the days leading up to one of Ali’s most anticipated fights.
The play occasionally flashes back to the 1930s when Fetchit’s career was flourishing during the golden age of Hollywood before returning to the 1960s, when Ali’s career and stardom were at a high. For Ali there was also a cloud of civil unrest in the wake of the Malcom X assassination as well as his tense relationship with the Nation of Islam. All the while, the “Greatest of All Time” is about to go head to head with Sonny Liston.
The play eventually moved on to the New York Theatre Workshop in 2013 and now this incredibly poignant and thoughtfully constructed narrative has made it’s way to Hollywood. Actually, it’s Culver City, but close enough. Until July 16, it will be playing at the Kirk Douglas Theatre down the street from Sony Pictures and Amazon Studios. Fetch Clay, Make Man also marks the first theater production from LeBron James and Maverick Carter’s The SpringHill Company — so it is getting very Hollywood. That’s a good thing because then more people will get the opportunity to see it.
Ray Fisher, who originated the role of Ali, reprises his role alongside The Bear‘s Edwin Lee Gibson who wildly embodies the role of Fetchit. They are joined by Alexis Floyd, who plays Ali’s wife Sonji; Wilkie Ferguson II in the role of Ali’s right hand man Brother Rashid; and Bruce Nozick as Hollywood mogul William Fox.
I will just add to the chorus of what has already been said: it is that amazing. As per my reaction tweet (this was before Threads was a thing) after watching: “Went to opening night of the Debbie Allen-directed #FetchClayMakeMan written by Will Power and I was gobsmacked. Ray Fisher is an incredible force as Muhammad Ali and Edwin Lee Gibson as Stepin Fetchit is a whole out-of-body experience to witness.”
I added, “If you like Edwin Lee Gibson as Ebraheim in #TheBearFX then you’re gonna LOVE him in #FetchClayMakeMan. I cannot stop thinking of his performance. It’s remarkable.”
Went to opening night of the @msdebbieallen-directed #FetchClayMakeMan written by Will Power and I was gobsmacked. @ray8fisher is an incredible force as Muhammad Ali and Edwin Lee Gibson as Stepin Fetchit is a whole out-of-body experience to witness. @CTGLA pic.twitter.com/Lx1Y8o970C
— Dino-Ray (@DinoRay) June 26, 2023
Charles McNulty of the Los Angeles Times, called Allen’s direction “nimble” and wrote: “Vitality is found not in the plot but in the clash of theatrical styles of the two main characters. The leads are extraordinary. Ray Fisher incarnates, with natural majesty, the brawn and bravado of Muhammad Ali; Edwin Lee Gibson shambles and stammers as Stepin Fetchit while retaining the dignity of a canny survivor.”
This echoes reviews from 2013 when it premiered in New York. “Elegantly acted, directed and designed, the drama is showcased in a knockout production at New York Theatre Workshop,” Joe Dziemianowicz
said in the New York Daily News.
However, it was in the New York Times review that stuck with me most. “Throughout ‘Fetch Clay,’ you can feel Mr. Power studiously diagraming exactly how the play’s themes — of authenticity and identity, of the internal and external conflicts faced by prominent African-Americans in a racist culture,” wrote Charles Isherwood. He continued, “Mr. Power shows a compassionate understanding of Fetchit’s fall from fame to disgrace. In one memorable passage, Fetchit spits out a painful, precise line that summarizes the differing roles the men played in the history of American culture: ‘I snuck in the back door,’ he says to Ali bitterly, ‘so you could walk in the front.'” It was that line in the play that Isherwood so graciously frames that hit me in the gut.
On its surface, the play is already rich with story, a complex moral fiber and a point of view. However, as Allen sculpts Power’s words, it goes beyond the tension of building legacy and the pressures that come with that — especially when you are a public facing persona. When Stepit says “I snuck in the back door so you could walk in the front” it’s like a dagger of truth in Ali’s heart that I felt. We are so often — especially in this age of self — too busy sculpting our own legacy that we fail to notice the legacy that allowed us to do so. In other words, mind your elders.
Upon a closer examination of a cross section of the dense layer cake that is Fetch Clay, Make Man, the play is rich with the interrogation of religious ideologies; the power and struggle of feminism (thanks to a strong performance from Floyd, the sole woman of the play); the bond of brotherhood; and even the politics of Hollywood — but it all comes down to identity and ego. How do you maintain your own identity and sense of self but also be the representation of a greater community that is not a monolith, but seen as one? Now add being a person of color to that and it opens a whole new can of worms — and Fetch Clay, Make Man attempts to wrangle all those worms.
Again, going back to my favorite line of the play — let me say it one more time: “I snuck in the back door so you could walk in the front”. It’s such a read on Ali that even he is gagged because realizes that there is no representation without preservation. However, when it is a person of color saying these words there is more weight on them. There’s more at stake and, unlike white people, how you get there matters — and sometimes that requires making some compromises that people may not like.
In the play, it is revealed the Fetchit was a good friend of the legendary Black fighter Jack Johnson — and Ali wants to learn about the “anchor punch”. For some reason, Ali thinks Fetchit knows all about this knock-out maneuver. One has something the other needs. Ali needs this magical “anchor punch” from Fetchit while the washed up actor needs Ali to feel relevant again.
There’s a feeling being broken in this story. It feels sad and empowering all at once. Ali, played with a vibrantly endearing confidence by Fisher, has to live up to be the “greatest of all time”. That said, he embodies an outsized, arrogant version of himself in order to fulfill his role in the public eye. Now that he is the greatest, he must maintain that because one slip up and he is done.
On the flip side of Ali’s career is Fetchit, whose real name was Lincoln Perry. He was a vaudeville performer in the 1930s who leveraged his on-stage persona of the “Laziest Man in the World” for a lucrative career in Hollywood, being considering the first Black actor to do so. He was also the first Black actor to receive a screen credit in a feature film in Hollywood.
However, the persona was and still is criticized for bolstering harmful Black stereotypes. Thus poses the question of how far are you willing to go for fame? More importantly, is it exploitation to use one’s culture for personal gain and is it considered “representation”? Questions like these bloom like mushrooms in Fetch Clay, Make Man but never get answered. Instead, they are probed and prodded by the players with a phenomenally memorable performance from Gibson as Fetchit.
The role of the fallen Hollywood star is the most demanding as Gibson shifts gears from vaudeville Fetchit to Shakespearian Perry with erratically sooth ease throughout the play. The character seems to be the most potent player in the bunch as it is a solid representation of the emotional journey a marginalized person when it comes to representing their community.
So often we get pigeon-holed into being one thing and if we step outside of those boundaries it feels foreign to others, but growth to us. It’s as if we are not allowed to go beyond what is expected, or maybe more appropriately, assigned to us. And like Fetchit, we make the best with what we have even if it means disappointing those who we are “representing”. And like Ali, we paint ourselves into a corner of greatness and are pressured to deliver that same greatness over and over again. And if we fail once or refuse to play the game, we become instantly irrelevant — and that is the North Star that Fetchit and Ali are chasing: the fear of being erased. In fact, that’s the North Star many of us are chasing — especially in the film and TV industry. Which is why this production of Fetch Clay, Make Man speaks so vividly to the volatile and uncertain landscape of Hollywood.