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Vol. LXIV, No. 3
 
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
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Music/Theater

Black Power Greets Uncle Tom in McCarter World Premiere, Exploring Surprising Muhammad Ali-Stepin Fetchit Alliance

Donald Gilpin

In May 1965, two days before his heavyweight title defense against Sonny Liston, brash 23-year-old Muhammad Ali, recent convert to the Nation of Islam, welcomed to his training camp as a “secret strategist” the 62-year-old Stepin Fetchit, born Lincoln Perry, film star of the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s who was known for his demeaning character portrayals of the white man’s most negative stereotypes of black people. In an era of rising black pride and black power, exemplified by Ali (formerly Cassius Clay), Stepin Fetchit’s appearance in Ali’s entourage was a curious phenomenon.

So are the encounters that propel the action of Fetch Clay, Make Man, a world premiere at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre by playwright Will Power, from the opening meeting of the two consummate and controversial self-publicists through eight scenes (two of them flashing back to Setpin Fetchit’s early career in Hollywood) to the night of the fight in Lewiston, Maine two days later.

In the opening scene, as Step is ushered into the dressing room, Ali pretends to be furious with the much reviled actor and even, for the sake of his nation of Islam sentries waiting outside, stages a mock fight in which Fetchit is killed. Brother Rashid, Ali’s Nation of Islam assistant and overseer, is completely fooled, and both he and the audience are served warning. Don’t trust appearances, don’t oversimplify, don’t judge hastily the extraordinary complexities of creating and sustaining identity and integrity amidst the pressures of race and celebrity in America.

Mr. Power, hip-hop artist, stage performer and award-winning playwright, who has created Fetch Clay, Make Man over the past two years while serving as playwrightin-residence at McCarter, takes full advantage of the dramatic, political, psychological, and philosophical opportunities the exploration of this surprising friendship provides. “By looking at the struggle that these two men went through in the attempt to control, manipulate, and own their own image in the pursuit of their own American dream,” Power explains in his program note, “we can learn so much about the complexities of that age, as well as our own.”

The action takes place in Ali’s dressing room in Lewiston, Maine and then William Fox’s Hollywood office (1929-31) as he spars verbally over movie contracts and fights for control with Stepin Fetchit, but the black, white, and grey set looks like a boxing ring. There are rows of seats carved out on the right and left, large lights and metal beams overhead, with a surrounding white runway for performers approaching the upstage right door.

The stark simplicity of the set, with just two tables, two chairs and a bench on stage, and its white, black and grey color scheme belies the increasing complexity of the issues that arise in the play. Projections on the back screen enrich the production and provide background and transitions between scenes, with images of Stepin Fetchit’s movie roles from three decades earlier; clips of legendary prize fighter Jack Johnson, an old friend of Fetchit and role model for Ali; documentary shots from publicity surrounding the Ali-Liston match-up; and photos from Ali’s actual fights.

Will Power’s “Fetch Clay, Make Man” will run through February 14 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre on University Place in Princeton. Call (609) 258-2787 or visit www.mccarter.org for information.

But every scene of this play is, in fact, a fight for both men — for freedom, independence, identity — a fight far more difficult than the long-awaited boxing match that concludes the play.

The dual protagonists are perfectly cast: Ben Vereen, veteran luminary of Broadway, film, and television, as Stepin Fetchit, and Evan Parke, young star with a growing list of distinguished film and stage credits, as Muhammad Ali. The contrast, the clashes, the chemistry, and the coming together of these two create humor, high drama, and a fascinating comment on the relationship of mentor and pupil and the convolutions of race and identity in our country.

From his portrayal of Stepin Fetchit’s shiftless, lazy movie persona in the opening excerpt from an old movie, Mr. Vereen artfully moves through many transformations as he deals with Fetchit’s boss William Fox (Richard Masur), Ali’s feisty young wife Sonji (Sonequa Martin), the hostile Nation of Islam in the person of Brother Rashid (John Earl Jelks), and of course the troubled young prize fighter himself. Insisting that “nothing could be further from the truth” than his much despised Hollywood image as “the white man’s boy,” Mr. Vereen’s Stepin Fetchit reveals his sharp intelligence, his winning charm, and that ability to simultaneously indulge and mock his movie persona and to use the perceptions of others that enabled him to become one of the richest and most successful movie stars of the ’30s before he met with a decline in fortunes, was termed “too difficult and untrustworthy” to work with, and who eventually declared bankruptcy in the 1940s.

As an older man, hoping to make a new movie and jumpstart his career with the help of Ali’s celebrity, Stepin Fetchit eagerly tells Ali stories of Jack Johnson, himself a controversial public figure, and explains to Ali Johnson’s fighting strategies, finally even a description of the legendary “anchor punch.” This smart, outspoken character is clearly not the Stepin Fetchit stereotype of the movies, but neither is he ready to sign on with the Nation of Islam. His presence and behavior is a constant affront to Brother Rashid and a striking source of conflict — with Ali caught in the middle — throughout the play. Bald, extraordinarily flexible in body, expression, and characterization, Mr. Vereen is uncompromisingly credible and entertaining — funny, sympathetic, interesting — in bringing this man to life.

Mr. Parke’s Muhammad Ali provides a formidable counterpart, always at the center of the fray — first with Rashid and his Nation of Islam supporters who want to use him to promote their message, then with his young wife Sonji who met him as Cassius Clay and is less than comfortable with their conversion to Islam, and throughout the play in his dialogue with the wise and curious figure of Stepin Fetchit. Just offstage, of course, are the additional pressures of the public, the voracious media and the Sonny Liston contingent, not to mention vengeful Malcolm X followers, who suspect the Nation of Islam was responsible for the assassination of Malcolm X just three months earlier.

Mr. Parke takes on the role with confidence worthy of the “The Greatest, the Louisville Lip” himself. He looks and plays the part of the poetry-prating prize fighter and interacts convincingly with the various factions impinging on his life, all seeking to grasp and use a piece of his celebrity for their own purposes.

The three strong, seasoned members of the supporting cast create a dynamic ensemble. Mr. Jelks is a stern and powerful antagonist and exponent for the Nation of Islam. Ms. Martin creates an alluring female presence and injects an unsettling element into Ali’s life, as her colorful, enticing outfits and her less-than-pristine past clash with Ali’s Islamic aspirations. Mr. Masur is excellent as the hard-nosed movie executive cutting his best deal with the prickly Stepin Fetchit. Mr. Masur’s William Fox also shows a compelling human side, as he reveals the deprivations of his past and the compromises he too has made in playing the Hollywood game.

Des McAnuff (Tony Award winner, director of Jersey Boys, The Who’s Tommy and many others, artistic director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Canada) has directed this work with maximum efficiency, skill and dramatic tension. The action moves swiftly, scene to scene, as the night of the Ali-Liston fight approaches. Riccardo Hernandez’ set and Howell Binkley’s lighting coordinate smoothly with Peter Nigrini’s projection design to focus the action and keep the audience informed and engaged.

As Stepin Fetchit, barred from ringside by Brother Rashid, watches the fight on TV in the final scene of the play, the Ali-Liston conflict is definitively resolved, but so many other issues are left hanging. History, of course, created, and continues to create its own resolutions, but Mr. Power, for better or worse, leaves the key relationships of the play — Ali and Sonji, Ali and the Nation of Islam, Ali and Stepin Fetchit — up in the air, fodder perhaps for future historians and playwrights.

W.E.B. DuBois, in his The Souls of Black Folks (1903) described the necessary “double-consciousness” of the African-American, “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Will Power, from the perspective of the Obama era, explores this same dilemma in the characters of Stepin Fetchit and Muhammad Ali in 1965. Fetch Clay, Make Man provides a fascinating glimpse of a crucial moment in history and a thoughtful examination of profound and important social and moral issues. With its superlative cast and production team and such rich material, it should draw a wide, enthusiastic, diverse audience at McCarter and beyond.

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