The unusual alliance, in 1965, of boxer Muhammad Ali with Stepin Fetchit, the Depression-era comedian and stereotype, seemed so odd that it certainly deserves an imagined play chronicling their interaction.
Will Powers’ Fetch Clay, Make Man does just that, and in a dynamite production at Bethesda’s Round House Theatre direct from California, packs in all manner of pertinent race issues of the Civil Rights era as well.
Almost wholly imported from the Marin Theatre Company of San Francisco, where Round House producing artistic director Ryan Rilette had that same job five years before coming to the D.C. area, it brings in a number of talented actors.
None are more perfect than Eddie Ray Jackson as Ali, bringing a rare athleticism and boxer’s build to a role that doesn’t attempt impersonation of the rhyming champion as much as it does the embodying of his spirit.
Jackson brings the brash confidence of the good-looking boxer who had changed his name from Cassius Clay after embracing the Nation of Islam, but also a vulnerability in how much is riding on his shoulders and whether he can actually beat Sonny Liston again in the looming rematch.
There aren’t many shows around that address so many still timely issues of race and role models, featuring casts this tight.
Roscoe Orman is perfect as Fetchit, a character almost lost to history, who was in fact the first black actor with a screen credit and Hollywood’s first black millionaire — all from a laconic character he created so well, people thought it was his actual personality. It was such an effective characterization that Fetchit, whose real name was Lincoln Perry, was blamed for promulgating the widespread stereotype, effectively putting an end to his career especially as the civil rights movement was building.
He would claim he was misunderstood and actually broke ground in film (for refusing to do the white man’s jobs), but nobody even bothered to ask. Fetchit was adrift and largely washed up when Ali called him to visit his training camp in Lewiston, Maine, to learn what the old actor knew about the secret punches of the champ of his era, Jack Johnson.
In Derrick Sanders’ effective staging, Orman does his one screen-style imitation of the star as the play begins, seemingly stepping out of the black and white projections to do his bit of funny business.
But for the rest of the production he’s the older, wiser Fetchit, happy to be plucked out of obscurity by the most famous fighter of the land, but also struggling to extend it into some kind of opportunity.
Physically, Orman is a dead ringer for the older Fetchit, and is a good fit with the younger Jackson to portray this unexpected team. But when you learn that Orman is an accomplished actor who originated Gabriel in the original Broadway production of Fences who himself is known to a couple of generations of as Gordon of Sesame Street, the mind really starts to boggle. As Gordon, he was in his time as effective a pop culture integrationist as Fetchit was in his. But until someone writes a play about him, his solid portrayal of the old film star will do just fine.
Two more highlights in the cast are from D.C. theater circles, led by the show stopping Katherine Renee Turner as Ali’s strong-willed wife Sonji, a vibrant woman still adjusting to her Muslim attire.
Jefferson A. Russell’s role might be thought a throwaway — a tough bow-tied Muslim enforcer. But he shows some range and complexity in the role as well.
Even Robert Sicular’s smaller role as a studio boss is well handled as well in a couple of flashback scenes reflecting Fetchit’s time in Hollywood.
The playwright Power has a lot to pack into the play, including who was to blame for Malcom X’s murder a few months earlier, the status of the black power movement, and women’s role in it. Maybe he tries to put in too much.
The immediate dramatic tension is the impending prize-fight, and whether Fetchit will be able to remember enough of Johnson’s technique to make a difference. When the drama stacks up the issues in act two, a viewer can only feel nervous for the champ: Get these people out of the dressing room and let him prepare.
For all the action that occurs there, Courtney O’Neill’s set is authentic and serviceable; its side stages covered in hanging ribbons serve to offset the action behind them or reflect Caite Hevner Kemp’s strong black and white projections onto them.
Sanders’ direction keeps the action moving along with the ideas; not a problem when the leading actor is dancing and jabbing half the time.
There aren’t many shows around that address so many still timely issues of race and role models, featuring casts this tight. The result is an exhilarating night at the theater that, dare I say it, could also be considered a knock out.
Advisory: Adult language.
Running Time: Two hours including one 15 minute intermission.
Fetch Clay, Make Man runs through Nov. 2, 2014 at the Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda. Tickets are available from 240-644-1100 or online.