Go Fetch

McCarter artistic director Emily Mann (center) and friends with John Earl Jelks (left) and Ray Fisher (right) from the cast of Fetch Clay, Make Man.

On Saturday night, I ate a number 16 from Hoagie Haven (i.e. a bacon cheesesteak) with Muhammad Ali.

Okay, maybe he wasn’t the real Ali (and maybe I did put mayonnaise and ketchup on my sandwich), but he was pretty darn close. I was, in fact, sitting across a table from Evan Parke, the actor who has been cast as the legendary heavyweight champ in McCarter Theatre’s outstanding production of the original play Fetch Clay, Make Man.

Written by Will Power, directed by Des McAnuff, and featuring the powerhouse cast of Parke, John Earl Jelks, Sonequa Martin, Richard Masur, and the Tony Award–winning Ben Vereen, Fetch Clay, Make Man tells the little-known story of the then-23-year-old pugilist’s unlikely friendship with the former Hollywood star Stepin Fetchit. With the tumultuous 1960s as its backdrop and an austere set that evokes a boxing ring, complete with stark, unforgiving overhead lights, the play itself is very much like the controversial fight that the storyline builds to: Ali’s famous rematch with Sonny Liston. The rhythm of its language is contagious: an exhilarating brew of dialogue on expression, image, self-preservation, legacy, race, religion, and power. Through two acts, the show dances, then jabs, and you suddenly find your heart in your throat as the notorious anchor punch is finally dropped. Power, an acclaimed playwright, actor, rapper, and educator, has ecstatically tapped into his experience in hip-hop theater and given this show its music, much like the impromptu spoken poetry Ali was famous for delivering, on camera and off.

As a woman with little to no prior interest in boxing, I found this play utterly fascinating (would it be giving too much away to say I even shed a few tears?), thus making it ideal for a night out with your husband, boyfriend, or favorite male sports aficionado. And, if you want to see the show on Tuesday nights, tickets are only $20 when you use promotion code “PSCOOP” (click here for tickets: mccarter.org).

Fetch Clay, Make Man is at the Berlind Theatre at McCarter now through February 14. I highly recommend you make the time to see this fabulous production before the show gets picked up by some Broadway muckety-mucks and you won’t be able to get a ticket for less than $150. And mark my words: This show is going places. —JH

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