When Worlds Collide: The Champ and the Chump

The Extreme Court may have struck down affirmative action, but nevertheless, 2023 is shaping
up to be a superlative year for debuts and revivals of Black-themed dramas treading the boards of
Los Angeles’ stages. This bumper crop currently electrifying L.A.’s theater scene include: June
Carryl’s police brutality two-hander Blue (see; Katori
Hall’s Dr. King one-acter The Mountaintop (see:; plus an
adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth starring African American thesp Max Lawrence in the title
role (in repertory at
Now we can add to this already auspicious list Will Power’s thought-provoking, perplexing
Fetch Clay, Make Man, directed by Debbie Allen. As the newly minted Muhammad Ali (Ray
Fisher, reprising the role he first played a decade ago) prepares for his 1965 rematch with ex-
champ Sonny Liston, the heavyweight champion summons Stepin Fetchit (Edwin Lee Gibson) to
his training camp in Maine. The premise is fascinating, if not flabbergasting.
Why would the glib, poetic pugilist who boasted “I’m so fast that… I turned off the light
switch… and was in bed before the room was dark,” want to meet the actor/comedian famous for
his “dim-witted, tongue-tied stammer” and “phenomenal slow-lazyman shuffle,” as film
historian Donald Bogle wrote in 1973’s Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks? If Ali was
the sixties’ exemplar of Black Pride, what motivated him to seek out what Bogle dubbed was
“the embodiment of the nitwit colored man” and “plantation darkie” of thirties’ movies, such as
John Ford’s Judge Priest? What would the embodiment of the emerging Black Power movement
need from the servile “coon” whose anachronistic, embarrassing screen stereotypes and
buffoonery made him the epitome of “race traitors” and “Uncle Toms” (epithets hurled onstage)?
This is the central plot point and mystery of Fetch Clay, Make Man. The first question I had
during intermission was did the playwright conjure this seemingly preposterous tête-à-tête up out
of thin air and his feverish imagination? According to Bogle, Stepin Fetchit “turned up in the
entourage of Muhammad Ali,” and an article in the two-acter’s playbill refers to “the unlikely
friendship” between them. Otherwise, this piece sheds no light on what Muhammad’s motivation
was for arranging the has-been movie star’s trip up to Maine.
Is Will Power doing what Kemp Powers did in his 2013 Cassius Clay/Ali play, One Night in
Miami, that is, rendering a work of speculative theater, reading into, expanding and dramatizing
an actual historical occurrence? Kemp’s title refers to the night the then Cassius Clay defeated
Liston to take the heavyweight title, then returned to his Miami hotel room with Malcolm X,
singer Sam Cooke and athlete Jim Brown. That much is known about February 25, 1964 – the
rest, Powers apparently spun out of whole cloth – and his creativity, imaginatively going behind
closed doors to manufacture a stellar play.
Be that as it may, Fetch Clay, Make Man has several subplots. Alexis Floyd portrays Sonji, Ali’s
first wife who he has conflicts with as she declines to play her assigned role as an obedient,

dutiful, modest Muslim wife by insisting on being a contemporary, worldly woman which is
truer to her real self. Wilkie Ferguson III plays Brother Rashid, Ali’s Man Friday, the head of his
security and the boxer’s Nation of Islam minder. Flashback scenes set during the late twenties/
early thirties show that offscreen Stepin Fetchit was a crafty, shrewd negotiator, who outfoxed
movie mogul William Fox (Bruce Nozick). All of the contemporary characters want to get
something from and out of the world famous, rich champ, who was only 23-years-old in 1965.
Getting back to the play’s central premise, perhaps this is why the beleaguered Ali brings the
washed-up movie star all the way to Maine. Afterall, Stepin Fetchit was arguably as famous
during his Hollywood heyday as Ali is in 1965; both are among the best-known Black men of
their times. Ali may be seeking counsel from the onetime Tinseltown celebrity as to how best to
handle his newly found fame, fortune and notoriety.
Another possible raison d’être suggested by the play is that since Stepin Fetchit knew the first
Black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, he may be able to impart to Ali a boxing secret that
will empower Ali to again defeat Liston in their upcoming bout. Indeed, at a press conference Ali
refers to the former comedian as his “secret strategist.”
But I still sense that there’s more to the Ali-Fetchit relationship than the above explanations,
although they probably played a role in the athlete’s soliciting of the actor. I’ve been scratching
my head pondering this puzzling conundrum since the proverbial curtain rose at the Kirk
Douglas Theatre, and I’m not the only one. In 2013, when Fetch opened at the Off-Broadway
New York Theater Workshop in a production also starring Ray Fisher, Charles Isherwood wrote
in The New York Times: “the dramatic adrenaline necessary to create a powerful play does not
entirely materialize. Mr. Power tosses interesting ideas and contrasting characters into the ring,
but doesn’t quite succeed in shaping a compelling narrative.” (Power’s play premiered in 2010 at
McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J., with Ben Vereen depicting Stepin Fetchit.)
What I suspect Will Power is getting at is that descendants shouldn’t dismiss and disregard their
forebears, and that each generation can learn from and has something to offer one another. Stepin
Fetchit may have played demeaning roles, but he lived in a more racially restrictive time, when
apartheid was still widely practiced in America, whereas the Black nationalist Clay/Ali emerged
as the Civil Rights movement was challenging segregation.
Bogle points out: “At a time when contracts for black players were unheard of Fetchit was
signed” by Fox. He was also the first to become a millionaire and among the first African
Americans to receive billing for the movies they acted in. In the character’s own defense in
Fetch, he argues: “I snuck in the back door, so you could walk in the front.” Power’s play seems
to make the point that today’s generation stands on the shoulders of yesterday’s generation.
Furthermore, beneath the celluloid stereotypes, Stepin Fetchit’s shuffling persona was a clever,
elaborate ruse that enabled him to avoid doing lots of hard work. It’s not as if the cotton
plantations, etc., of the antebellum and Jim Crow South had profit sharing plans and benefits for
their laborers.

Two-time Tony nominee and Golden Globe/Drama Desk Award winner actress/choreographer
Debbie Allen of Fame fame nimbly helms her cast, eliciting sensitive, nuanced performances
from all five members of the cast. Allen’s renowned background as a choreographer comes in
handy when directing Ray Fisher as the boxer known for his fancy footwork, floating like a
butterfly, stinging like a bee. Projection designer Pablo N. Molina’s enlarged images of the
actual actor and athlete (not of the thesps depicting them) projected on the upper walls of the
Kirk Douglas enhance the production. Scenic designer Sibyl Wickersheimer’s set is mostly bare,
although behind what may be the upper walls’ scrims hanging heavy punching bags can be
glimpsed. At one point the athletic Fisher deftly demonstrates his fisticuffs finesse, punching a
speed bag downstage.
The play also explores Ali’s conflicted feelings regarding Malcolm X and the allegation (planted
by the FBI?) that the late leader’s followers are (literally) gunning for him. In 2021, when I
interviewed Ken Burns about his Ali mini-series for PBS, television’s top documentarian told
me: “I think it’s also fair to understand that this 21-, 22-year-old kid is terrified that the same
thing might happen to him if he got on the wrong side of Elijah Muhammad… I mean, Malcolm
X was assassinated by members of the Nation of Islam… the Fruit of Islam – the NOI’s
enforcers [which Fetch’s Rashid is a member of] – have got to be scaring the bejesus out of
everybody, including – after the assassination of Malcolm X – a very young and impressionable
Cassius Clay...”
As mentioned above, Ali’s marital woes are also touched upon in Fetch. Interestingly, the play’s
one sex scene ends with coitus interruptus, which may be a reference to sexual conflicts Ali
possibly had. Ali’s acting career is also alluded to; Stepin Fetchit yearns to make a comeback on
the silver screen with a biopic about Ali called The Greatest. Although unmentioned onstage, Ali
actually did play himself in a biographical movie of that name in 1977, co-starring Ernest
Borgnine as Ali’s cornerman Angelo Dundee, Robert Duvall and John Marley. Who knows,
maybe this movie originated as Stepin Fetchit’s idea? (Ali also starred in the 1979 TV movie
Freedom Road as a Reconstruction Era legislator who stands up against white supremacists. The
novel was written by blacklisted ex-Communist Party member Howard Fast and helmed by
Czech director Ján Kadár.)
Upon leaving the theater, an African American female usher insisted on telling me what the
drama’s title, Fetch Clay, Make Man, meant. She noted that “Fetch” and “Clay” not only refers
to the two lead characters but also means to get clay in order to sculpt a man, by combining the
older with the younger generation. Everybody’s a critic! But I guess it’s as good an interpretation
as mine. I’m not sure that I fully understood Will Power’s intent, and I’m still thinking about it.
Perhaps that’s one of the highest compliments one could pay any work of art.
Fetch Clay, Make Man is highly recommended for serious theatergoers who love: Great acting;
stories about racism; Muhammad Ali; film history; boxing; a thrilling night out at the thee-a-tuh;
and searching for what lies beneath the surface to discover the substance, to go from appearance
to essence. My prediction is that this play will be adapted for the screen like One Night in Miami
was and the movie version will also be directed by an African American woman – Debbie Allen,
but of course. (You heard it here first!) In any case, don’t miss this compelling drama about the

strange but true relationship between the lightning fast, poetic Louisville Lip and the so-called
“Laziest Man in the World,” who, as Bogle wrote, “could never pronounce a word with more
than one syllable.”
Fetch Clay, Make Man is being performed through July 16, 2023, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre,
9820 Washington Blvd, Culver City, CA 90232. Tickets and info:
Aloha oe (farewell to thee), Julian Sands