“When you wear the mask for so long,” Lincoln Perry, a/k/a Stepin Fetchit (Roscoe Orman) warns Sonji Clay (Katherine Renee Turner), the wife of world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, f/k/a Cassius Clay (Eddie Ray Jackson) in this astonishing play, “you can’t take it off.”
Art imitates life, but sometimes life becomes art its own damn self, and this was one of those times. Let me give you some of the details:
There is a man whose shadow hangs over the play, though he is not a character in it. He was Charles “Sonny” Liston, and for a time he was the most fearsome athlete on the planet. Liston had fought thirty-six times as a heavyweight professional, and won thirty-five. He had knocked out his opponent in the first round in his last three fights. In one of them, he took the world heavyweight championship away from Floyd Patterson. In another, he beat Patterson for the second time, so badly that the former champ took to wearing disguises.
“When Sonny gave you the evil eye – I don’t care who you were – you shrunk to two feet tall,” said boxing promoter Harold Conrad. Joe Cotto, who had trained Mike Tyson and George Foreman as well as Liston, said that Liston was the hardest puncher among the three. Liston had served time for armed robbery, and later for assaulting a police officer. Before fighting Ali, he had never been knocked out. “[T]he guards used to beat him over the head with clubs and couldn’t knock him down,” boxing announcer Don Dunphy said.
At the time of their first fight, Clay was 19-0 but had looked sketchy in some of his previous fights. Liston was a 7-1 favorite and didn’t take his opponent seriously. He trained on beer and hot dogs. Clay carved him up like a Thanksgiving turkey.
As the play opens, we are in Lewiston, Maine, preparing for the rematch. After winning the championship, Clay announced that he had joined the Nation of Islam. Later, he received his new name from Elijah Muhammad, Messenger of Allah. White America, used to black champions like Patterson and Joe Louis, was in an uproar when Ali said he would join the black separatist movement. Already, Ali had performed his first miracle: he had turned Sonny Liston into a hero.
Liston, for his part, had his own awakening. With a better idea of what was at stake, he got down to serious training. He took off some weight, revised his ring strategy, worked hard.
So here is Ali, reviled, isolated and about to face a man who punches harder than Mike Tyson. He is the defending champion, and yet he is a 13-5 underdog. You can understand that he might reach out for a friend. And this is the second miracle: the friend is Stepin Fetchit.
You may never have seen Stepin Fetchit in old movies because more recent generations of movie executives, embarrassed by our racist past, have often excised his scenes. But he was the prototypical shuffling, bowing, scraping, conniving stereotype in the movies of the thirties and early forties “I’m not me, I just look like me, but I’m somebody else,” he explains in the play’s first scene, to an invisible white boss who has caught him sleeping under a tree, “if I see me I’ll tell ‘im to get back to work.” Wide-eyed, slow-talking, slack-faced, he seems like a man with an IQ in the negative numbers. As his bewildered boss rides off, a slow smile creeps over his face. He goes back to sleep.
Now it is 1965, and in the eyes of the emerging black consciousness he is a race traitor. His slow, lazy black man fed white stereotypes about people of color. But Lincoln Perry, the man who created Stepin Fetchit and inhabited him in the movies, was a millionaire. He was the first black superstar, and lived in a mansion with servants. Moreover, he was a superb businessman, as the play shows in his scenes with the overmatched William Fox (Robert Sicular), the head of 20th Century Fox’s precursor, Fox Studios. “I’m saying that I agree with you that five hundred fifty dollars a week [the salary Fox proposed] is more than enough,” Perry says, as Fox’s features visibly relax. “But…” Perry gets up to show Fox a contract marked up with dozens of revisions, “Mr. Goldman [his lawyer] thinks otherwise.”
Ali brought Perry into camp principally to teach him the “Anchor Punch”, the secret weapon that the legendary black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, allegedly taught Perry back when they were running buddies. Perry knew Johnson well, and teaches Ali many of the things that he learned from the old champion, but he pooh-poohs the idea of an “Anchor Punch.”
Instead, as Orman and Jackson make clear in this excellent interview with DCTS’ Jeffrey Walker, Perry teaches Ali about masks. Perry wore one with a vengeance, so that he as a black man could find his only way into the movie business. He had hoped that his work as Stepin Fetchit would help him get serious roles in other films. It was not to be, but he was a pioneer for other African-American artists. “I sneaked in the back door,” he tells Ali, “so that you could walk through the front door.” (The point echoes an observation by Sidney Poitier, who said that without a Lincoln Perry there could never have been a Sidney Poitier.)
But Ali wore a mask, too: the sweet-natured fighter, who liked nothing more than to please his audience with a magic trick or two, became the race warrior, turning his back on his friend and mentor, Malcolm X, because Malcolm had defied Elijah Muhammad. And Sonji, too, wore a mask: robed in the garb of an Islamic woman, she was really the same woman she always was, deeply in love with her husband, but ready for a party. “…Islam ain’t for you,” Stepin Fetchit says, “all this here, it’s all an act, so don’t be tryin to get all righteous with me and my intentions, if you’re gonna wear the mask wear it, but don’t try and fool the fool, cause all you doin’ is foolin’ yourself.”
Ali’s bodyguard, Brother Rashid, too, seeks to escape his iconography, and his thug past. He tries to embrace the aesthetic of the Nation of Islam, but he is rooted in carnality. “I heard you slap your wife and daughter around when you get the urge,” Sonji charges, and although Rashid squirms, he does not deny.
Even Fox wears a mask: “My character is William Fox, the big man on top of the world here at Fox Movie tone. And all this, the suits, my cigars, it’s all an act,” he says.
Playwright Will Power may be writing about icons, but he gives us human beings. Each character is fully and subtly developed, full of conflict, hope, bad impulses, selfish to a degree, but finally men and women like you and me. Power has not simply written a history play (and believe me, Fetch Clay is as much a history play as Richard II.) He has brought history to life.
I am delighted to report that the Round House production is worthy of this great script. Jackson, who has a background as a boxer, begins by being credible as an athlete. He is not as big as Ali – more of a middleweight – but that actually fits in well, as his contemporaries considered Ali “small” in comparison with the massively muscled Liston. When he jumps rope and shadowboxes, you see a top-rank athlete, not an actor playing one. Jackson has also mastered Ali’s sing-song cadence, and the musicality the fighter’s voice had as a young man. He’s also captured Ali’s more elusive qualities – his bemusement, the love he had for the attention he got, his passion, his slyness. The Ali he gives us is the one capable of developing his brilliant rope-a-dope strategy in Zaire, nine years later.
Orman, who has played Perry in a one-actor show, gives us two characters. One, boldly, is Stepin Fetchit, who Orman plays in such a way that we in the audience are in on the joke. The other is Perry, a modest but extremely brave man who is not afraid to tell truth to power – or to tell lies to power, either, if that works out better. Perry in this play is surrounded by high-stakes drama: in the hands of an organization suspected of great violence (Malcolm X had been assassinated shortly before the play opens), the guest of the world heavyweight champion, whose motivations he does not fully trust. You can almost see the wheels turning in the head of Orman’s Perry, but it’s never obtrusive, and it’s never inauthentic.
FETCH CLAY, MAKE MAN
Closes November 2, 2014
Round House Theatre
4545 East-West Highway
2 hours, 25 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $35 – $50
Tuesdays thru Sundays
The supporting roles are just as strong. Turner makes a stunning Round House debut as the champ’s wife – a sexy woman who had lived a hard life on the streets before she met Ali. She loves Ali, and she loves her good life, too, for which Ali is the meal ticket. We see all of that in Turner’s portrayal, and more: she lights up the stage.
As for Russell as Brother Rashid, he is occasionally more frightening than Sonny Liston. Brother Rashid is a thug who found purpose and redemption in the Nation of Islam. But it is a hard thing for him, and it is obvious that he would love to use his ultra-violent skills on the Nation’s behalf. Russell establishes his dangerousness immediately, and then spends the rest of the play blending in the other, more subtle aspects of his character. He is, simply put, magnificent.
Sicular as Fox is a little more one-dimensional, but there’s a reason for that: what we’re seeing is not Fox in the flesh, but Fox as recollected by Perry. By the time of the second Liston fight, Fox had been in his grave for thirteen years.
But what of the anchor punch? Did it work? Take a look, and judge for yourself.
Fetch Clay, Make Man by Will Power, directed by Derrick Sanders, assisted by Edgar Gonzalez. Featuring Roscoe Orman, Eddie Ray Jackson, Jefferson A. Russell, Robert Sicular, and Katherine Renee Turner. Scenic design by Courney O’Neill, lighting design by Colin K. Bills, costume design by Heidi Leigh Hanson, sound design by Christopher Baine, production design by Carla Hevner Kemp. Kirsten Royston was the properties artisan and Bekah Wachenfeld was the stage manager.
FETCH CLAY, MAKE MAN
Closes Nov. 2
Susan Berlin . TalkinBroadway Orman brings dignity and self-possession—as well as a dark sense of humor—to his portrayal of Fetchit.
Peter Marks . Washington Post an interesting undercard to history.
Chris Klimek . City Paper a pair of extraordinary lead performances that meet the challenge of inhabiting two of the most famous men of the 20th century.
Sydney-Chanele Dawkins . DCMetroTheaterArts has race politics on its mind but at its heart this knockout of a story is about identity.
Roger Catlin . MDTheatreGuide an exhilarating night at the theater that, dare I say it, could also be considered a knock out.
Lorna Mulvaney . BroadwayWorld the over-ambitious script and unexciting scenic design fail to live up to their subject matter.