Stepin Fetchit has been all but erased from film history, a victim of both racism in Hollywood, which had no interest in the first black movie star playing any roles besides minstrel caricatures, and the Civil Rights movement, which viewed his shuck-n-jive as the worst kind of betrayal. To the Black Power movement, Fetchit was the epitome of an “Uncle Tom,” as far as you could get from Muhammad Ali, self-described—not inaccurately—as “the black man’s hero.” In 1965, Ali sent for Fetchit ahead of his legendary fight with Sonny Liston. Fetch Clay, Make Man (at the New York Theatre Workshop through October 13) dramatizes that meeting, and it’s hard to imagine a better entry into exploring the evolution of black identity and the nebulous line between how things are and how they are portrayed.
Crucially, Fetch Clay makes clear, even telegraphing it from its title, that both Fetchit and Ali are playing roles and uneasy with the clash between their public and private images. The two function as inverses of each other: Ali an icon in public but privately struggling against being a puppet for the Nation of Islam, and Fetchit’s servient characters eclipsing not only his trailblazing importance but also his canny as a performer and businessman. Tellingly, both view themselves as their professions’ Greatest of All Time.
This is a fascinating conflict, recalling Clybourne Park’s similar use of mirror-image characters to examine racial tensions. Fetch Clay doesn’t approach that work’s incendiary energy, but it does give full overdue voice to Stepin Fetchit, thanks primarily to a mesmerizing performance by K. Todd Freeman, who is as convincing reenacting a goofy soft-shoe routine as he is when visibly withering under his people’s calling him a traitor. He’s devastating as he points to the precedent he set as the first black actor to receive a screen credit, sputtering, “I fought to give us a name.”
Perhaps inevitably, the play has less success with Ali, who is simply too distinctive, too big of a character, to fit into a narrative without feeling like an imitation. Ray Fisher looks persuasive in the part, but Will Power’s script reduces him to catchphrases—no one could write dialogue for Ali better than he could—and belabors the parallel between Ali wanting to control his wife and studios controlling Fetchit. He’s the headliner, but the heart and soul are in Fetchit, a man who had to choose between terrible work or no work and was vilified for his decision. A man who embodied hateful stereotypes, but also defied them. A man who is told by his bosses, in a line that will still find resonance today, “you can have anything you want, so long as we agree that you can have it.”