‘Fetch Clay, Make Man’ delivers with a knockout punch

If for no other reason, Will Power’s play “Fetch Clay, Make Man,” which premiered in New York in 2013, deserves kudos for its clever title.

But there are plenty of other reasons to be impressed by this two-act drama, now in a sterling West Coast premiere at Marin Theatre Company.

Set mostly in Cassius Clay’s dressing room just prior to his famous 1965 rematch with boxer Sonny Liston, in Maine — with occasional flashbacks to Hollywood during the Golden Age — the play re-imagines, and presumably expands upon, what was in fact a personal connection between the champ (a luminous, layered performance by Eddie Ray Jackson) and erstwhile movie actor Stepin Fetchit, née Lincoln Perry (Roscoe Orman, brilliant in the role).

As Power posits in a series of succinct dialogues between the two — which range from jokey to confrontational to deeply empathetic as they get to know each other — both are struggling to come to terms with a self-chosen identity.

Clay, now known as Muhammed Ali of the Nation of Islam — and full of his signature sly humor, prancing and dancing and hubris — sees himself as “the black man’s hero.”

“Step,” as he’s called, knows that because of his lazy, shambling screen persona — which made him one of the richest actors in Hollywood — he’s perceived as an Uncle Tom. A complex personality, torn between pride and regret, he’s on the downslide when Clay summons him.

Clay believes Step has inside knowledge of a move called an “anchor punch,” invented by the late, world-famous boxing champ Jack Johnson, a friend of Step. Clay needs that punch to defeat Liston, and dubs Step his “secret strategist.”

For his part, Step is reluctant to share that knowledge.

Other characters, all beautifully portrayed, weave in and out of the action: Clay’s religiously devout bodyguard, Brother Rashid (Jefferson A. Russell), Clay’s sexy, feisty wife, Sonji (Katherine Renee Turner), and the head of Fox Studios, William Fox (Robert Sicul).

Some of Power’s subplots are underwritten (the rift between Clay and his wife, for example, flashes by too quickly), and others, while of historic interest, feel extraneous (the flashbacks to Fox’s office, references to a threatened disruption of the match by Islamists who suspect Clay of involvement with Malcolm X’s recent murder).

But under Derrick Sanders’ astute direction, and with giant back- and side-wall projections to represent the various themes and eras (video designs by Caite Hevner Kemp), the play packs, ahem, a considerable punch.

REVIEW

Fetch Clay, Make Man

Presented by Marin Theatre Company-Round House Theatre, Maryland

Where: 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Sept. 7

Tickets: $35 to $58

Contact: (415) 388-5208, www.marintheatre.org

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