‘Fetch Clay, Make Man’ at the Kirk Douglas Theatre

The stellar performances by Ray Fisher and Edwin Lee Gibson are reason enough to get to Kirk Douglas Theatre to see “Fetch Clay, Make Man,” but the script is so rich, so deep and nuanced, actors were likely clamoring to audition. Director Debbie Allen chose some champions for these roles, and the show is luminous. 

Set just before the rematch between Mohammed Ail (Ray Fisher) and Sonny Liston in May of 1965, the entrance of Stepin Fetchit (Edwin Lee Gibson) seems to be a surprise to everyone involved; until Ali owns up to his reasons for inviting the older actor up to his training camp. Ali’s bodyguard, courtesy of the Nation of Islam, is Brother Rashid (Wilkie Ferguson III) whose boxer-wrangling involves more than keeping an eye on the door. The boxer’s long-time spouse Sonji Clay (Alexis Floyd) who still calls the Heavyweight Champion ‘Cassius’ has her own reflections to spar with. Fetchit’s flashbacks to his time at 20th Century Fox studios call up the memory of William Fox (Bruce Nozick) and reveal the dancing he had to do off-camera to create a film career. What Ali wants from Fetchit – some insider info on the tactics of the boxing champ Jack Johnson – gives the film actor a place to stand as he searches for a way to win. 

The arc of history, from the on-screen clowning of the Fetchit character, to the performative poetry of Ali’s press quotes, reflects the both manners and masks; black men succeeding by filling a role. But it also questions how much each creates their own persona, and what the cost is for trading authenticity for acceptance. 

The murder of Malcom X also shadows the scene, coming forward and then falling back at key points in the action. How the characters reconcile their own roles as actors in their lives gives an almost quantum level of humanity to the performances onstage. 

Will Power, the playwright, is considered one of the founders of ‘hip-hop’ theater, and director Allen’s well known history as a dancer and choreographer give the play the music and the moves to take on every level of the story. 

Playing only until July 16, 2023 (at this point no extension has been announced, but the house has been almost completely sold through the run) it’s time to get tickets while they are still available.

Fetch Clay Make Man at KDT – for tickets go to centertheatregroup.org

Judith Martin-Straw

The Actors' Gang