Everyone around the world knows Muhammad Ali as The Greatest, the heralded boxing legend and charismatic civil rights icon. But have playwright Will Power tell it, there’s much more to the man formerly known as Cassius Clay and his storied legacy than many know. Power’s latest work is an off-Broadway play entitled Fetch Clay, Make Man, the story of the prized pugilist and his relationship with Lincoln Perry, the actor who infamously portrayed the character Stepin Fetchit.
Black America’s greatest hero, Malcolm X’s homeboy, being associated with someone many filmgoers, scholars and history buffs can easily refer to as a quintessential coon—the base, degrading, stereotypical caricature of African-Americans welcomed with open arms by the White establishment during the country’s most divisive time?
Hell yes! In the days before one of the most anticipated bouts in boxing history, a 23-year-old Ali summoned the controversial Hollywood star to aid him in his pursuit to take on his most fierce opponent Sonny Liston back in 1964. And the rest is history.
Will Power, long considered a pioneer of “hip-hop theater,” came upon this relatively unknown relationship by happenstance. A San Francisco native who grew up with a Communist mom and a dad who ran around with civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael, Power was a frequent visitor to the country’s oldest Black-owned bookstore, Marcus Books. It was there in 2005 that he first saw a gargantuan-sized poster book on Ali, displayed on a mantel like the holy grail.
“I was flipping through it and I saw a picture of Muhammad Ali and his entourage. And next to him was Stepin Fetchit. I was like, wow!” Power shares. “It listed all of the people in the photo and it described Stepin Fetchit as his secret strategist.
“ ‘How was he his secret strategist? What does that mean?’ I wondered. When I saw that picture, I said ‘There’s a play in there. I don’t know what the story is, but there’s a play in there.’ Because their public personas were so different, especially in the ’60s and the ’70s. Polar opposites in the Black experience, and yet they were friends.”
The aha moment at the bookstore led Power (who won raves in 2006 for creating The Seven, a hip-hop-centric adaptation of the Greek tragedy Seven Against Thebes) to craft his next theater piece. A commission from Princeton, New Jersey’s McCarter Theatre led to a five-year-long journey of exhaustive research spanning Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. With dissertation-like precision, Power interviewed numerous sources, watched countless films and documentaries, and read whatever he could get his hands on for the show—which originally bowed in 2010 starring the legendary Ben Vereen.
“The thing that’s really interesting is that Muhammad Ali is probably one of the most chronicled individuals in the 20th, 21th century,” says Power. “The fascinating thing for me [is that] out of all of the things that have been done, no one bothered to look into this relationship. Some people knew about it, but no one took it seriously. They thought it was a joke or it wasn’t important.”
Power admits that Ali wasn’t available to him for interviews but doesn’t go into great detail. However, he learned that one of his daughters saw the original production and gave her blessing. Same for Lincoln Perry’s granddaughter, whom he had the chance to actually meet the night she saw the show.
“[It] was crazy,” Power recalls. “She lives in New York, she a beautiful sister. She has dreads. She said, ‘Thank you so much for doing this. People would laugh at me when I told them who my grandfather was.’
“I feel like the piece has gotten better since the McCarter [Theatre],” Power says. “It’s the same energy, but it’s a real different piece. It’s tighter, it flows better. We worked on a lot since that first production.”
The fact that two-time Tony Award winner Des McAnuff (Jersey Boys, The Who’s Tommy) is directing this new version of Fetch Clay, Make Man at the New York Theatre Workshop gives hope that it might transfer to the Great White Way. Power—who looks to late, great playwright August Wilson as a source of inspiration—welcomes the possibility.
“One of the many things that I’m so inspired about with August Wilson is that he did Broadway but he did it in his own voice. He never sold out. He did it his way. I feel like if I can do that, which I think is very possible, then I would love it. I think this piece can do that, but it all depends on how it’s received.”
Karu F. Daniels’s work as an entertainment journalist has been featured in The Daily Beast, CNN.com, Vibe and Uptown, among others. Follow him on Twitter @TONTOKaru.