In 1969, during his exile from boxing, Muhammad Ali starred in a Broadway musical, Buck White. A tuneful spoof of the black power movement, the show included the songs “We Came in Chains,” “Mighty Whitey,” and “HNIC.” Ali played the titular lead and the Times wrote that he “sings with a pleasant slightly impersonal voice, acts without embarrassment, and moves with innate dignity.”
Yet the show closed just a week after opening. That might have marked the end of Ali’s stage career, but playwright Will Power has plunked the heavyweight champ (a staunch, graceful Ray Fisher) into a gleaming, ring-like set for New York Theatre Workshop’s Fetch Clay, Make Man.
A few years ago, Power chanced upon a photo that showed Ali and the film actor Stepin Fetchit together at a 1965 press conference and has since built a rickety bioplay around that image. Such an odd pairing would intrigue any writer, especially one with Power’s interests in force, performance, and presentation. What would attract Ali, an avatar of strength, to a man who represented indolence incarnate? Why would someone seeking to advance the position of black men embrace an actor who made a million caricaturing them? And Ali did embrace Fetchit, even calling him “my secret strategist.”
Despite robust performances and Des McAnuff’s glossy staging, Fetch Clay appears as historical curiosity rather than propulsive drama. The conflicts on offer are intellectual rather than visceral, and Power never fully communicates the necessity of putting these two men onstage together. Here, Ali summons the destitute Fetchit (K. Todd Freeman) because he believes Fetchit holds the secret to fighter Jack Johnson’s legendary clout: the “anchor punch.”
But the gift of the jab doesn’t sustain a two-hour play, which unfolds as a series of schematic arguments between two and sometimes three characters, including Ali’s first wife, Sonji (a brazen and seductive Nikki M. James); his Nation of Islam minder, Brother Rashid (a quietly violent John Earl Jelks); and Fetchit’s bygone studio boss, William Fox (Richard Masur). These scenes culminate in Ali’s decisive fight against Sonny Liston, yet while they escalate in volume, they don’t build in dramatic vigor. Flashbacks to Fetchit’s early days in Hollywood further emphasize theme even as they further disrupt story arc. This is a play more interested in telegraphing its punches rather than landing them.
Still, there’s pleasure in the paired performances, particularly Freeman’s, a sly and subversive turn that seems to invest every line with layers of meaning. When he performs a minstrelesque soft-shoe routine, we should recoil at the travesty; instead, we applaud his playful grace. Fisher, though less nuanced, provides a suitable foil and distinguishes himself in scenes with James. He does a bit of fine footwork, too.
And there’s pathos in the twinned image of two self-created men who often felt themselves at odds with their personae. Fetchit, born Lincoln Perry, was a canny tactician who made his fortune playing a spectacular idler. Ali, who also famously renamed himself, had to negotiate between his personal desires and his position as the face (and body) of black masculinity. Both struggle, in the words of Brother Rashid, to “become a full man.” Power’s play suggests that, with the force of history behind them and the expectations of the world before them, neither may ever achieve it.