FETCH CLAY, MAKE MANby Will Power
Dallas Theater Center
Directed by Nataki Garrett
Set Design by Mariana Sanchez
Costume Design by Lex Liang
Sound and Projection Design by Rasean Davonte Johnson
Lighting Design by Jason Lynch
Hair and Makeup Design by Jason Hayes
Fight Coordination by Nicole Berastequi
CAST (in order of appearance)
Stepin Fetchit --- Tyrone L. Robinson
Muhammad Ali --- Preston Butler III
Brother Rashid --- Keith Arthur Bolden
Sonji Clay --- Shenyse LeAnna Harris
William Fox --- Bob Reed
Reviewed Performance: 12/9/2018
Reviewed by Chris Jackson, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
“(The play) invites us to examine how black public figures have had to craft their public identities in response to the violence of white supremacy. It asks us to look deeply into questions of agency and power. It challenges us to explore our own choice to understand, erase or embrace our elders who lived in profoundly different times and made choices that we now find problematic.” Kevin Moriarty
“The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.” Muhammad Ali
The intimate Studio Theatre at the Wyly Theatre is the perfect venue to experience Fetch Clay, Make Man. As stated in the above quotes, the play is about persona, the masks we create, and the roles we give ourselves to make it through our lives. In this studio’s small space, we feel part of the confessions, the reveals and the lies and truths as they are exemplified by this outstanding cast of actors. Roles are tried on and cast aside, feints and jabs, verbal and physical reveal the extent of the identity each has had to – or has chosen to – fashion for themselves. Roles are not always static. Choices, conscious or not, take place, and the image projected is enforced or subtly adjusted to ensure survival.
Ali clearly understood archetypes as well as Fetchit did. The fact that they exemplified the two extremes of the black man in America made their strange friendship both fascinating and difficult to fully comprehend. Playwright Power’s play gives us an imaginary look at this partnership as he reveals each character’s needs, wants, secret yearnings, and sometimes questionable actions.
Director Nataki Garrett has put together a fast-paced, high-energy production that never lets go of the tension and excitement of the relationship between these two men. She uses the small space of the Studio Theatre much like a boxing ring, characters circling each other, coming together and pulling apart, meanwhile keeping the story front and center, the beats clear, and the moments earned and taken.
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” Muhammad Ali
Preston Butler III as Ali, is a constant blur of movement, dancing, feinting, spouting his narcissistic rhetoric without seeming to need a breath. It’s a powerhouse characterization without being a caricature. Mr. Butler also manages to show us the hidden Muhammad Ali by letting the mask slip on occasion, generally, when he’s alone. The energy Mr. Butler brings to the role is astounding.
Tyrone L. Robinson inhabits his role as Stepin Fetchit from the very first solo scene when he enacts an iconic moment from one of his movies. That scene, and others where he dons his Fetchit character, are uncomfortable now to watch, but support the whole metaphor of masks and defenses people use to thrive and survive. For much of the play, Mr. Robinson is more visible as his character’s actual name, Lincoln Perry. Levels of intelligence, methods of coping, and needs are given life through Mr. Robinson’s stance, gestures, and sidelong glances. Together Mr. Butler and Mr. Robinson go toe to toe, feeling each other out, and working to gain an advantage by getting what they need from each other. Watching the two of them, scene after scene, is a pure delight.
Keith Arthur Bolden is Brother Rashid, Ali’s bodyguard and, to some extent, Ali’s “stepin fetchit.” The actor exudes coiled energy, anger, and stone-cold purpose, spending his time squaring off with character after character. What we first want to dismiss as only a flunky, is soon shown to be much, much more in Mr. Bolden’s layered performance. As the only female in the cast, Shenyse Leanna Harris as Ali’s wife Sonji Clay, makes her first entrance in good Muslim wife costume. This mask is soon shown to be exactly what it is as she lets us see inside Sonji’s true feelings and desires. Her transition back to her pre-Muslim self is shocking at first, and then revealed to be a truer persona than might have been thought. Ms. Harris manages to be brash, contrite, scheming and loving all at once in a truly interesting characterization. William Fox, the head of the studio where Fetchit is under contract, is played by Bob Reed with precision and no-nonsense delivery. Fortunately he gets to reveal his true self in a later speech, making his another character donning a facade to get through life. Like the other actors, Mr. Reed constantly engages the audience and shows us a fully rounded individual.
“Rivers, ponds, lakes and streams – they all have different names, but they all contain water. just as religions do – they all contain truths.” Muhammad Ali
The set design by Mariana Sanchez utilizes the Studio space by placing the audience in two adjacent corners facing a roughly square playing area dominated by a white-covered boxing ring with black posts at the corners, but no ropes. Walls are made of raw plywood and planking with a black and white entrance area that contains a sliding wall that becomes a screen. There’s also a black and white shower area, and posters and a punching bag. The black and white echoes the black/white undercurrent and tension of the 1965 time period, the white ring the almost too literal space the black man must conquer. It’s an environment that works well for the script. Lighting design by Jason Lynch is used to light the place evenly and clearly, with subtle shifts for accentuation and dramatic ones to cue projections.
Costume Design is by Lex Liang and each character is carefully defined by what they wear. Ali in workout gear, Rashid in a uniform, Fetchit and Fox in suits, and Sonji in a white Muslim wife’s modest outfit, and then in a tight, revealing garb. Each costume reflects the personality and/or profession of the wearer, becoming part of the mask they project. Sound and Projection Designer Rasean Davonte Johnson makes a strong impression with carefully and dynamically chosen pictures and film projections and music appropriate to the period and the subject matter. Jason P. Hayes does Wig and Make-up Design for the show and impresses with Ms. Harris’ wig when she reverts to her pre-Muslim character.
“It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe.” Muhammad Ali
With themes of identity and conflicts faced by African-Americans in a world dominated by white culture, Mr. Power’s play sets up lots of topics for contemplation. Ali wants Fetchit to give him the secret to the “anchor punch” made legendary by black boxer Jack Johnson. Fetchit wants Ali to make a movie of his life, using Fetchit in a way that will restore his non-existent career. He also wants Ali to acknowledge the foundation he, and others have laid. “I snuck in the back door so you could walk in the front,” Fetchit tells him. Rashid wants Ali to speak more about the Nation of Islam in his press conferences. Sonji wants to be free to be herself, and when Ali demands the truth, he can’t accept her answer. Fox needs Fetchit until he can’t use him anymore. People build on the past of others, acknowledged or not, creating their own story, making adjustments based on the advantages gained and obstacles either overcome or gone around.
“Old age is just a record of one’s whole life.” Muhammad Ali
As an old white man, I don’t claim to be able to speak to the problems of the African-American. I can’t speak to the adjustments that must be made to the mask to function in society – and what that costs. I can, however, speak about living through the movies of Stepin Fetchit, the time of Muhammad Ali, and the revolution of the ‘60s. I can also see how, sadly, we seem to be returning to some of the worst of those times. If you are too young to know much about Muhammed Ali and, especially, Stepin Fetchit, a little research will help before seeing the show. Also information about the Nation of Islam, Cassius Clay’s becoming Muhammed Ali, and the death of Malcom X and the consequent danger to Ali as a result of that death. The play is powerful and gripping, but an understanding of the subtext will be helpful.
Many things have changed in the eight years that have passed since Fetch clay, Make Man was first produced in January of 2010 in Princeton, New Jersey, and not all for the better. The Dallas Theater Center production gives us the chance to contemplate the fictionalized partnership between Ali and Fetchit and draw from it universal truths about need, presentation, and how the present generation stands on the backs of past generations. It’s an intriguing story, very well presented, and well worth a trip to the sixth floor of the Wyly.
“It’s just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up.” Muhammad Ali.
Finally, we all wear masks of some sort to survive and, to a large extent, create our own story, all of us looking for that secret “anchor punch” that will make us a champion.
Side note: Lisa Creech Bledsoe, in her article “Why Does Boxing Give Us More Language for Our Lives Than Any Other Sport” lists the following expressions: In Your Corner, Down (or out) for the Count, Pull Your Punches, On the Ropes, Roll with the Punches, Knockout, Take it on the Chin/Lead with Your Chin/Glass Jaw, Toe to Toe/Infighting, Square off, Saved by the Bell, Throw Your Hat in the Ring, Beat Them to the Punch, Low Blow, Throw in the Towel, Keep Your Guard Up/Taken off Guard, Come Out Swinging/ Go Down Swinging, Heavyweight/Lightweight, Take a Dive, In the Clinch, and Fight Until the Bell Rings/Go the Distance.
The Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre Studio Theatre
2400 Flora St. Dallas, TX 75201
Final Performance on January 13th, 2018
Ticket Prices $20 -$101, subject to change
For tickets and more information, go to www.DallasTheater Center.org
Box Office Phone (214) 880-0202