In “Fetch Clay, Make Man,” playwright Will Power considers two iconic 20th century figures in terms of their radically different approach to African-American self-empowerment — the vintage Hollywood Uncle Tom stereotype Stepin Fetchit and heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali. Their 1965 encounter provides a compelling central dynamic, and Des McAnuff’s hard-edged premiere production for McCarter Theater Center adds a stark visual impact. But greater focus and economy are needed to crystallize this thematically rich material. While the play inches along and is never uninteresting, its potential to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee remains unfulfilled.
Evan Parke brings the requisite imposing physical presence, nimble footwork and loquacious braggadocio to the indelible figure of Ali. But the dramatic center is Ben Vereen’s role as Lincoln Perry, the vaudeville performer who made his fortune in silent films and Depression-era talkies playing screen persona Stepin Fetchit, the quintessential negative stereotype of the shuffling, smiling, work-shirking Negro. “I’m just so tired from sleepin’…,” he says in a bit from 1935 John Ford comedy “Steamboat Round the Bend.”
Tapping all the undiminished charisma and limber body language of a veteran song-and-dance man, Vereen effortlessly sells the now-reviled representation of the black flunky while slyly asserting the cultured, savvy negotiator beneath; it’s a performance of enormous charm and intelligence. What’s most intriguing about the character is his refusal to apologize for exploiting rather than resisting racial prejudice.
The cultural impact of both the play’s key characters remains significant, but less is remembered about their unexpected association in the mid-’60s, when “Step” became Ali’s unofficial strategist. That meeting between the self-mocking, subservient face of black American heritage and one of its god-like heroes gives Power a lot to work with, particularly in the juxtaposition of Ali’s swaggering self-aggrandizement with Step’s ingratiating double-edge. Yet somehow, the conflict feels insubstantial.
Step had declared bankruptcy in 1947, his film career was over and he was an anachronistic embarrassment to African-Americans, so he had much to gain from the exposure. He makes no secret here of his ambition to resurrect his acting career under his own name, perhaps teaming onscreen with Ali. (There’s a funny scene in which Ali rejects the idea of going up against a cowboy, but warms to facing a supernatural adversary, like a mummy: “Plus the Mummy is from Egypt, and Egypt is in Africa, which means the Mummy is a brother, you dig?”)
The two men meet when the boxer summons the obsolete film star to Lewiston, Maine, while readying for his championship rematch against Sonny Liston. Much is made of Step’s past friendship with another black boxing giant, Jack Johnson, and of Ali’s wish to extract the secret of his predecessor’s famous “anchor punch.” But, fact-based or not, that aim is insufficient to create a balanced picture of what the two men need from each other.
Also unclear is exactly what the audience is expected to get out of the unlikely friendship, beyond the historically curious footnote that it actually happened.
Played out on designer Riccardo Hernandez’s minimalist boxing ring with judicious use of projections to establish time and place, the production adheres to black and white tones, lit with blinding crispness by Howell Binkley. Chief exception to the monochromatic color scheme are Paul Tazewell’s sexy outfits for Sonji (Sonequa Martin), Ali’s self-possessed, been-around-the-block wife, who finds the monastic Nation of Islam garb and her appointed role of obedient spouse too constricting.
Further hierarchical friction comes from Brother Rashid (John Earl Jelks), Ali’s tough henchman, who bristles against his yes-man status and protests that the boss is not pushing the Muslim doctrine hard enough. From the sinister bodyguards to the opportunistic relationship with celebrity figureheads, there seems an attempt to equate Islam with Scientology.
There are also detours to Hollywood in 1929-31, where crafty Step makes increasingly outrageous contractual demands of Fox Studios chief William Fox (Richard Masur). But the integration of these scenes into the dramatic mainframe is lumpy, and the attempt to parallel another self-invented identity forged out of oppression via Fox, the child of poor Hungarian immigrants, leans toward overload.
The play is stronger on humor than pathos, and despite the blows delivered to the pride of most of its characters, there’s too little emotional connection to them. This may be partly due to McAnuff’s tendency to have the actors standing and speechifying, with only Vereen fully emerging as a character capable of communicating in subtle shades. The director also needs to pick up the pace. Scenes run too slowly and too long; even when the dialogue is sharpest, it calls for more accelerated, rhythmic delivery.
The elements for stimulating drama are all present, but the distinct feeling emerges that it might work better as a pithy one-act. Power has primarily made his mark up to now in hip-hop theater like “The Seven,” and a less naturalistic style here would possibly have supplied more punch. If the production is to have a future, both playwright and director need to work toward greater lucidity, a more resonating conclusion and a tighter structure.