One is a comic buffoon reviled by his race for perpetuating stereotypes. Yet he is slyer than he may appear, able to play the white man for his own profit.
The other is a graceful butterfly of a boxer with a ferocious swing. He is devoted to the Nation of Islam and the civil rights movement, yet under the tough veneer lies a man of tenderness and compassion.
Stepin Fetchit and Muhammad Ali may seem like improbable friends, but in Will Power’s imaginative play “Fetch Clay, Make Man” — which is getting a knockout production at True Colors Theatre — they need each other.
Rather like Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop,” which imagines the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last night on earth, Power’s history-based drama suggests the moment in 1965 when Ali holes up in Maine to prepare for his rematch with Sonny Liston. Malcolm X has just been assassinated. The Nation of Islam is rumored to be behind the killing. And while Ali’s nervous lackeys try to shield him, Fetchit drops in, hoping to restore his tainted image by aligning himself with “The Greatest.”
We know Ali will win. What Power conjures so adeptly is the emotional fallout that transpires behind closed doors.
Directed by Eric Little, the show musters considerable appeal from the mesmerizing physicality of Rob Demery (Ali) and the desperate pathos of Brad Raymond (Fetchit). As tinny jazz music plays, the curtain goes up on a wide-eyed Fetchit, deploying his famous shtick as the black slacker, obsequiously making excuses to the powerful plantation owner. Raymond nails the voice, the eyes, the world-weariness and soul-sickness that is Fetchit.
Demery’s account of the pouncing, charismatic Ali — first seen as a silhouette behind a screen — is remarkable, too. A beautiful object, he is in love with a cause that gives second-class treatment to women. This is something his wife, Sonji (nicely played by Danielle Deadwyler), will not abide.
Meanwhile, Ali’s gatekeeper, Rashid (Amari Cheatom), despises Fetchit, and the tensions that ensue — between Ali and Sonji, Fetchit and Rashid, and others — propel the narrative, rather briskly at first, less so later on.
Ali, it seems, was an early rapper (and apparently so was Fetchit, if you watch old videos). His preening, narcissistic wordplay is in good hands with Power, a pioneer of spoken-word theater. In a kind of role reversal, Ali plays the clown — the comedian — while Fetchit slumps in defeat.
Yet the Hollywood actor had his moment, once. He manipulated Hollywood titan William Fox (Brian Kurlander), done up here to look a little like Chaplin, a self-made man who pulled himself up out of the ghetto, only to lose his empire and fade into obscurity.
Moving backward and forward in time, Power somehow weaves these historical facts into a thoughtful and provocative whole. Little, making his directorial debut, delivers a production that is elegant to look at and marvelously detailed. Kat Conley’s handsome set is designed on a scale to fill up the Southwest Arts Center — no small achievement. Jarrod Barnes’ costumes are basically what you expect of this milieu, but he still manages to have some fun in Sonji’s transformation from buttoned-up Muslim convert to leg-baring fashion plate.
There is much to like about “Fetch Clay, Make Man,” and except for a somewhat cumbersome second act, it packs a powerful punch — revealing its outsize characters to be weak and vulnerable.
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