A testy but curiously close relationship, indeed a provocative bonding, evidently occurred between boxing champion Muhammad Ali (Evan Parke) and former Hollywood film star Stepin Fetchit (Ben Vereen). This rather strange meeting and the subsequent interaction between these two notable African-Americans has, unfortunately, not been afforded either a convincing emotional center or a sense of dramatic urgency by playwright Will Power in “Fetch Clay, Make Man,” now having its world premiere at McCarter.
Power has been at the forefront of hip-hop theater and received accolades in 2006 for “Seven,” his hip-hop treatment of the Greek Tragedy “Seven Against Thebes.” For “Fetch Clay, Make Man,” he has used a more conventional dramatic style, perhaps unwisely, to tell the story. But perhaps I was simply expecting more innovation from this artist.
Parke’s performance packs the necessary wallop as the poetically loquacious Ali. His is a vivid portrait of the dynamic, egocentric, and uncompromising fighter who will not consider defeat. Parke’s fancy footwork, preening, and posturing, let alone his motor-mouthed delivery of Power’s often dazzling dialogue, are nothing short of virtuosic.
Vereen, the veteran multi-award-winning entertainer of the stage and undoubtedly best known for his memorable performance in the 1972 musical “Pippin,” has ample moments to demonstrate his grace and ingratiating manner. More importantly, he gives a profoundly moving characterization of the talented, intelligent, and resourceful ex-vaudevillian (real name Lincoln Perry, 1902-1985), who knew how to negotiate a contract and to outfox — namely William Fox, the bigwig of the Fox Movie Studio.
Parke and Vereen have been directed by Des McAnuff with a winning consideration of their individual and exploitable talents. McAnuff, who knows how to make the most of conventions (“Jersey Boys”), smoothes the edges of this somewhat choppy, episodic play.
Although the play is mainly set in 1965 in Ali’s dressing room in Lewiston, Maine, during the days leading up to Muhammad Ali’s historic rematch with Sonny Liston, it also travels back in time to the period of 1929 to 1931 so that we see the beginning of Fetchit’s remarkable, if ultimately controversial, career.
Unfortunately, Power’s attempt to build a substantial play that is driven by both the commonality as well as the disparity of these two remarkable men is only sporadically compelling. Unlike the legendary fight in which Ali floors Liston in the first round, we have to wait for Act II in order to see the play percolate with dramatic intensity and an involving conflict.
Learning of Fetchit’s friendship with legendary boxer Jack Johnson, Ali requests a meeting with Fetchit, whom he hopes will be willing to reveal the secret behind Johnson’s famed “anchor punch.” Fetchit, whose fame in both silent and talkie films between 1925 and 1935 came from repeatedly playing a shiftless, illiterate and lazy “Uncle Tom” type character, was denounced as deplorable by a newly enfranchised African-American society. He is nevertheless eager to see his life reassessed and his career revitalized. He has hopes that his association with Ali will lead to a film. “Once they see me with Ali, they’ll see I ain’t no traitor.”
Ali’s conversion to the Nation of Islam is offered as a point of conflict between him and Fetchit, a devout Catholic. Fetchit makes it quite clear how he feels about what he sees and hears, especially in the wake of the assassination of Malcolm X. The play is pointedly critical of the Nation of Islam, a perspective that may be offensive to some. Brother Rashid (John Earl Jelks), Ali’s belligerent and potentially dangerous brother-in-Islam cum bodyguard, and Ali’s beautiful, sexy, spirited wife, Sonji (Sonequa Martin), interestingly drive the play’s most absorbing scenes.
Jelks, who gave an extraordinary performance as Sterling in August Wilson’s “Radio Golf” (on Broadway and on a tour that included the McCarter) is close to terrifying as the ex-gangster Brother Rashid, whose goal is to destroy Ali’s relationship with both Fetchit and Sonji. Martin gives a fine and touching performance as the victimized Sonji, who strives to survive her past.
The play’s most disappointing and artificially composed scenes are between Fetchit and the crass studio head William Fox, as played without much credibility by Richard Masur. The usually admirable Masur will undoubtedly invest the role with more than is written in subsequent performances.
The stark simplicity of designer Riccardo Hernandez grey and white setting with its minimal accompanying decor is enhanced by Howell Binkley’s affective lighting. Costume designer Paul Tazewell has dressed the company smartly showing a particular flair for Ms. Martin’s attractive and by-color-enhanced outfits (once she sheds the white robes). At its best, “Fetch Clay, Make Man” gainfully alludes to the significant roles these two extraordinary African-Americans played in each other’s lives and in America’s social history. This may be enough to serve as a counterpunch to an unfocused play whose important themes are too noticeably scattered and diffused.
“Fetch Clay, Make Man,” through Sunday, February 14, Berlind Theater at McCarter, 91 University Place. $15 to $60. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.