Oh, the joy when a play comes together, when an exquisitely crafted script combines with heartfelt performances and attentive costuming and staging to move and inspire. And how joyful it is to see Fetch Clay, Make Man at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.
Writer Will Powers and director Debbie Allen lead the creative team. They flawlessly depict a difficult and complicated era in American history and in the lives of Muhammad Ali (Ray Fisher) and Stepin Fetchit (Edwin Lee Gibson).
Ali has summoned “Fetch” to Maine in 1965, as he prepares for his rematch with Sonny Liston. He has recently joined the Nation of Islam, although he is still sometimes called Cassius Clay by his first wife Sonji (Alexis Floyd) and others. He calls himself “The Greatest,” while he and Brother Rashid (Wilkie Ferguson III), his body man, call Fetch, among other things, “a traitor to our race.”
Despite his apparent disdain, The Greatest believes Fetch has something he desperately wants. He alternately coddles and threatens the first Black movie star, shown in flashbacks negotiating his studio contract with William Fox (Bruce Nozick) and walking the line between his onscreen and true character.
Both men inhabit the roles of their respective real-life men, physically, vocally and spiritually. Their performances play off each other and stand on their own. Their movement—fighting, dancing, floating like a butterfly—reinforce Debbie Allen’s skills as director and choreographer, as well as their own as actors. As Sonji Clay, Floyd is a tiny dynamo next to Fisher’s room-filling Mesomorph. Ferguson is appropriately menacing, Fox studio-head arrogant.
The Nation of Islam is an important character, guiding much of the action. Alternately a bully and a cocoon, the religion demands fealty and raises the stakes.
As one man rises toward the pinnacle of success, the other struggles to maintain his pride in the face of his loss of status. The intelligence, wit and talent of Ali and Lincoln Perry—aka Stepin Fetchit—receive their due in this one-of-a-kind theater experience.
Fetch Clay, Make Man is at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre Mondays through Saturdays at 8:00pm, Saturdays at 2:00pm and Sundays at 1:00pm and 6:30 pm through July 16. The theater is located at 9820 Washington Blvd, Culver City. Tickets are $30–79 and are available here.