On The Ropes
BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE | Taking his cue from the unlikely — but true — friendship between the Depression-era film star Stepin Fetchit and the heavyweight champion boxer Muhammad Ali, playwright Will Power has written a literate and highly absorbing play that emerges as a distinctively American work of art.
The play delves into the upheaval of racial politics in the mid-1960s. At the outset, Ali has just changed his name from Cassius Clay after embracing the Nation of Islam, a faction of black Muslims that advocated the separation of the races. Ali has sent for Fetchit because he heard he was a friend of the famous black boxer Jack Johnson. Ali wants Fetchit to tell him about Johnson’s legendary “anchor punch,” a move so powerful that it allowed the boxer to be virtually invincible. Fetchit, who by the mid-1960s had become reviled in the black community as the symbol of the subservient black man in white America’s culture, maintains he doesn’t know about the punch. But Ali takes a liking to him anyway, and asks him to stay to be his “secret strategist” as Ali prepares to defend his heavyweight title against Sonny Liston in Lewiston, Maine.
Swirling around these two characters in Riccardo Hernandez’s simple and stylized boxing ring set are members of the Nation of Islam watching over Ali, resentful of Fetchit’s presence. Sonji Clay, Ali’s wife, is also present, chafing at her new role as a subservient woman in the Nation of Islam.
Friendship of Muhammad Ali, Stepin Fetchit creates a powerful, not-to-be-missed play
Though the play is largely set in 1965 before the bout, there are flashbacks to the 1920s and 1930s where we see Fetchit with William Fox, of the eponymous studio that employed him, demanding and getting greater salary and greater power even as he plays the stereotypical character a later generation of black Americans would despise. Whatever degradation he endures certainly makes the cash register ring. In fact, we learn that Fetchit was the first black actor ever credited by name on film and one of the highest paid stars in Hollywood — the antithesis of his onscreen image.
There is enough history to keep this interesting, and Power has a wonderful ear for dialogue and a true gift for crafting characters and scenes. Yet what makes the play so compelling is that at its heart it is about the invention of the self. Just as Fetchit created a character that got him fame, fortune, and status in his heyday, Ali is struggling to create and maintain an image for himself as the self-proclaimed “greatest.” The invention of the self as a bankable commodity is a distinctly American narrative, whether for the fictional Jay Gatsby or the all-too-real Donald Trump.
In Power’s writing, it’s fascinating to watch as Ali proclaims his greatness and Fetchit, whose real name was Lincoln Perry, tries to convince anyone who will listen that he is not the character he played. Both, however, discover that they are — or will be — both empowered and imprisoned by the characters they created.
Power doesn’t leave it there but instead takes us inside each man. We see Fetchit –– possibly holding back the information Ali asks for so he will be alone –– as vulnerable to the judgment and mistreatment of others. And we see Ali as a man who on some level just wants to box. As the play’s conflicts and complexities unfold, every character remains sympathetic on some level — even Brother Rashid, the Nation of Islam enforcer who becomes Fetchit’s nemesis.
Des McAnuff’s taut direction is outstanding. One can’t help but feel the pace and tension slowly ramping up as the bout approaches and Ali, cool in his public demeanor, becomes more and more desperate to find the “anchor punch” in private. Conflict with his wife grows, as well, when Ali learns her past is not as pure as he had fantasized. Much is at stake for all the characters and the pressure of that does not let up, even in a bittersweet ending highlighting the respect of one kind of champion for another. We see clearly the darkly poetic similarities between the two.
As Muhammad Ali, Ray Fisher gives an extraordinary performance that conveys all the champ’s star power but also his depth, drive, and warmth when out of the spotlight. Nikki M. James is excellent as Sonji, who liberates herself from the role she’s expected to play —and accepts the consequences of that choice. Richard Masur is appropriately abrasive as Fox, but even he has his vulnerabilities. John Earl Jelks is powerful as Brother Rashid, stern in his defense of the Nation of Islam yet still a man who fears he may not be doing the right thing. K. Todd Freeman is revelatory as Stepin Fetchit, offering a performance of great physical accomplishment as well as clarity and focus — as both an aging, somewhat defeated star and a brash young actor who knows his value. Fetchit makes it known that what he was in his time helped create a world where an Ali is possible.
The issues Power tackles are intriguing, but it all works because he has written a good play. With brilliant use of language and elegant crafting of characters, he delivers a knockout punch.
FETCH CLAY, MAKE MAN | New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. Fourth St., btwn. Bowery & Second Ave. | Tue., Sat.-Sun. at 7 p.m.; Wed.-Fri. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 2 p.m. | $70 at ticketcentral.com at or 212-279-4200