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Stepin Fetchit: The Weird and Wonderful Conduit Between Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali

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Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali -- two extraordinary 20th century they-were-called-Negroes-then World Heavyweight Boxing Champions, were both KO-ed by the powers that be, who prevented them from practicing the craft they'd perfected at the peak of their prowess.

Why?

Because they both refused to "Do like we tole you!"

In 1908, at the height of Jim Crow, after Johnson won the always-formerly-held-by-a-white-man heavyweight title, he eschewed humility and instead mocked prevalent racial sexual taboos by consorting with, even marrying three white women. He also flouted conventions regarding staying in his social and economic place by arrogantly and verbally taunting his betters who retaliated by eventually convicting Johnson under the Mann Act for transporting a woman, actually an alleged prostitute, across a state line for immoral purposes! Humph! As if there were a better reason.

Convicted and sentenced to a year and a day in prison, Johnson skipped bail, lived and fought in exile for seven years, returning to the U.S. to serve out his sentence at Leavenworth so he could defend his title. He defeated all his Great White Hope challengers, including former champ Jim Jeffries who threw in the towel in the fourth round of their bout and admitted that even in his prime he'd been no match for Johnson.

Muhammad Ali was influenced by Johnson, particularly identifying with him after he was ostracized because of his affiliation with the Nation of Islam and his opposition to the Vietnam War. The same day Ali refused to step forward when his name was called for his scheduled induction into the U.S. Army -- a felony punishable by a five-year prison term and a $10,000 fine -- the New York State Athletic Commission suspended his boxing license and stripped him of his title. Ali spent his next four prime boxing years supporting himself by giving speeches at anti-Vietnam War protests until his conviction was successfully appealed in 1971. Ali, the first modern celebrity sports star, revolutionized boxing by the magnetism of his personality and by speaking freely about issues unrelated to sports. He also transformed the image of the black athlete by embracing racial pride.

Jack Johnson was killed in a 1946 car accident, when Ali was only 4 years old. Who or what could have connected them? Would you believe Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry?

Say who?

Perry aka Stepin Fetchit, was the black comedian whose movie portrayals of a lazy, sly, no account, shiftless, black stereotype rewarded him with Hollywood fame -- the first black actor to receive a screen credit, and fortune -- a millionaire who during the depression earned a higher salary than the President of the United States.

Because Perry and Johnson were friends, Ali got the notion that Perry knew all of Johnson's boxing secrets, include what put the power in Johnson's knockout Anchor Punch. Ali invited Perry to his training camp and made him his special strategist, hoping to trade Perry some of Ali's media access to change people's negative perception of Stepin Fetchit in exchange for Johnson's boxing secrets.

A ringside photo of Ali and Perry, side-by-side, taken before the Ali-Liston rematch intrigued playwright Will Parker enough to investigate the friendship between them. Fetch Clay, Make Man, the Anchor Punch of Parker's creative intelligence and imagination, is the stunning result.

Power's play is a study of illusion versus reality and slavery versus freedom. He presents each character as a multifaceted individual whose public facade masks inner fears. Ali worries about losing and being assassinated. "If the secret service couldn't protect the president, what chance does a black man have, especially one as pretty as me?" He's also enslaved by the religion he thought would free him.

Perry, an articulate, literate, shrewd man, was able to out-negotiate a more powerful studio chief in contractual parlays, but was unable to win the freedom to perform more interesting roles. Frustrated by being forced to play the same boring character on screen, Perry becomes too reckless off-screen to be worth what he's being paid by the studio. Or maybe times just change. Power presents Perry as forever trying to get out from under Stepin Fetchit's shadow and present his alter-ego the way he himself considered him -- as a subversive, revolutionary force.

Brother Rashid, Ali's Nation of Islam handler, struggles against a lifetime of pimp/abusive behavior. Sonje, Ali's first wife, refuses to conceal her "self-supporting" party girl/cocktail waitress past under Islam garments. Immigrant Movie Mogul William Fox, who willed himself "white," doesn't understand he would not be considered "white" in Bar Harbor.

Which, if any, of Johnson's secrets does Ali wheedle out of Perry?

All of them.

Perry teaches Ali how to fight with patience, change his style, become a master of detail, act out both winning and losing to give himself strength. And as for the secret of the Anchor Punch, Perry teaches Ali to use the power behind it in time for Ali to knock out Sonny Listen in the first round and provide a grand emotional climax to Power's play.

Fetch Clay, Make Man is superbly written, humorously yet movingly acted by all. Ray Fisher's fleet-of-foot Ali; K. Todd Freeman's funny but touching Step; Nikki M. James' in- your-face Sonje; John Earl Jelks' Brother Rashid and Richard Masur's William Fox, under Des McAnuff's super-direction turn a five-star script into a funny, disturbing and unforgettable event, totally appreciated by an enthralled cheering audience at the New York Theater Workshop which consistently presents amazing work in its East Village home.

Make time before Oct. 13 to revel in a production you'll never forget. However, I suspect from the quality of the acting and direction, the excellence of the writing, the level of audience appreciation, Step, Ali et al may soon be moving to Broadway.