By Kyle Osborne
Intimate, powerful and moving, Fetch Clay Make Man at Bethesda’s Round House Theatre is storytelling at its best.
Part fact and part fiction, the play imagines the private conversations held between the unlikeliest of friends: Muhammed Ali, emerging as the champion and celebrity who would soon become the most famous man in the world, and a recent convert to Islam–something that has further alienated him to the “mainstream” boxing fans. And Stepin Fetchit, once beloved by audiences nationwide and the first African-American actor to earn a million dollars.
So as Ali is becoming more “black,” as many saw it, Fetchit has become the object of ridicule—a “sell out” and “Uncle Tom” whose best known characters reinforced negative stereotypes about black people. Could there be an odder couple?
But there’s a method to the madness. Ali has summoned the has-been actor to his private training facility in Maine, of all places—in just a day or two, it will be the site of the rematch between Ali and Sonny Liston. Ali knows that Fetchit (his real name was Lincoln Perry) was friendly with former champ Jack Johnson, and Ali’s goal is to get the aged actor to reveal the secret of Johnson’s mythical “Anchor Punch”, which he hopes to employ against Liston.
The set-up is of historical interest, but the heart of the play is watching the two men learn from each other, if not fully accept each other’s methods. The dialogue may be fictional, but surely the kinds of things these two men from opposite ends of the cultural spectrum discussed must have been deep, personal and certainly controversial.
The feeling of glimpsing something “private” is but one thrilling aspect. The performances mimic parts of the real life figures without devolving into parody and mannered impersonations. As Ali, Eddie Ray Jackson resembles Will Smith’s Ali more than the man himself, but Jackson has captured the gentle cadence of Ali’s speaking voice, and perfectly re-creates the more theatrical (and loud) Ali in public settings—press conferences being a good example.
But the show belongs to Roscoe Orman, who many of us will remember as Gordon on Sesame Street for many, many years. Orman owns the role of Lincoln Perry, the well-spoken and elegant, elderly gentleman who wears the scars of an outcast and the stooped posture of age and sadness. However, other moments call for his character to step back in time for brief scenes as the young and eager Stepin Fetchit, holding his own with a Hollywood producer. In those moments, Orman morphs back in time with an easy, unfussy change in his physical being. It’s a sight to behold
There are light moments involving Ali’s wife and his bodyguard- played with flawless comedic timing by Jefferson A Russell as Brother Rashid. The smaller role of the wife is given a lasting impression by Katherine Renee Turner.
The agility with which the play weaves from drama to comedy and back through history is spellbinding. If you’re like many theater-goers, you’ll rush home to look up the people and the events on Wikipedia, and you’ll be surprised you didn’t know about this moment in history before, but you’ll always remember it fondly starting now.
Fetch Clay Make Man continues at Round House Theatre through November 2nd. Running Time: Two hours including one 15 minute intermission. For tickets call 240-644-1100 or online.