Friday, September 13, 2013

Fetch Clay, Make Man

What does a playwright owe a living person on whom he or she bases a character? What does a playwright owe the audience who comes to see a play "based on actual events"? Some people argue that the playwright owes nothing to either the person or the audience; the playwright needs to be true to his or her personal vision. And I understand their point; I think I may even agree with it, intellectually.
Ray Fisher, K. Todd Freeman
Photo: Joan Marcus
Emotionally, however, I find bioplays--e.g., Buyer and Cellar, The Audience, and Fetch Clay, Make Man, the focus of this review--distasteful. The playwrights piggyback on the fame and accomplishments of another person and present their fantasies of the person's life as art.

Another problem with bioplays is that wondering what is true and what isn't takes me out of the play. In Fetch Clay, Make Man, Muhammad Ali invites Stepin Fetchit to his training camp before his repeat bout with Sonny Liston. Ali attacks Fetchit, calling him a coon and threatening to beat him. This turns out to be a joking hazing, mostly. Did it happen? If so, Ali is pretty creepy. If not, playwright Will Power is possibly doing Ali a great injustice; the scene is ugly.

Later, Fetchit tells Ali's wife that she should discard her all-white, body-and-hair covering abaya and dress as the vibrant woman Fetchit knows her to be. And she does! We next see her looking impressively hot in heels, make-up, and a short, form-fitting dress. Did this actually happen? If so, did Ali really respond in such a low-key manner?

There are dozens of other questions of this sort, and even the trivial ones are distracting.

Putting these complaints aside, Fetch Clay, Make Man has the assets of energy and creative staging, along with some vibrant acting. Ray Fisher is a completely convincing Muhammad Ali. K. Todd Freeman as Stepin Fetchit effectively depicts a man trying to hold on to a dignity he is not 100% sure he deserves. And Power's exploration of what it has meant to be a black man in America is intermittently stirring.

The direction is by Des McAnuff. The projection design, which adds a great deal of energy but subtracts some clarity, is by Peter Nigrini.

Fetch Clay, Make Man ultimately left me with this question: I know what Power got by co-opting Ali's and Fetchit's lives, but what did he give in return?

(second row, press ticket)

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