And speaking of Stepin Fetchit and Des McAnuff, there’s an interesting play on now at New York Theatre Workshop called Fetch Clay, Make Man, about the unlikely friendship between Fetchit and Muhammad Ali, directed by Mr. McAnuff, that’s well-worth a look.

The action of the play revolves around Ali’s rematch bout with Sonny Liston in Lewiston, Maine. Ali had formally joined Elijah Muhammad’s Black Muslims and changed his name (from Cassius Clay) in between the two fights. The fight was conducted in an atmosphere of fear of violence – of retribution against Ali for the murder of Malcolm X (whom he had shunned after the latter’s break with Elijah Muhammad), and of retribution against Liston by Elijah Muhammad’s followers should he defeat their champion. The fight turned out to be one of the shortest in heavyweight boxing history, as Ali knocked out Liston almost as soon as the fight began, with a punch that almost nobody saw. Ali claimed that this “phantom” or “anchor” punch was a charmed move taught to him by his friend, Stepin Fetchit, who in turn learned it from the first African American heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson.

This much is history. The play takes this history and hones it to an ideological point. Rather than being a long-time friend of Ali’s (and already a convert to Islam), in the world of the play Fetchit, still a Catholic, was summoned by the champion precisely to teach this mysterious “anchor punch” that Ali feels he needs to defeat Liston. The Muslims, personified by Brother Rashid, are none too pleased by this new addition to Ali’s entourage, who drinks near beer and flirts with Ali’s wife, Sonji – and, most importantly, who created a lazy, cringing black clown character that represents the antithesis of everything the Black Muslims stood for, and a character that was so popular, and made him so wealthy, that Fetchit was essentially consumed by it, becoming unable to play any other part. He’s the last man they would ever want their cause and their champion associated with (unless he renounced his former self and became a Muslim).

The first delight of the play is the title, a play on the two main characters’ names whose meaning is decidedly ambiguous. Where the boxer shed his “slave name” of Clay to become Muhammad Ali, the actor shed his given name of Lincoln Perry to voluntarily assume the “slave” name of Stepin Fetchit, the name by which he was known for the rest of his life. And yet, per the action of the play, Ali (Clay) needs to fetch Perry (Fetchit) to gain the power to overman Liston.

The second is the performances. K. Todd Freeman anchors the play with a rendition of Stepin Fetchit that is wise and crafty and resentful and bitter – a brilliant portrait of a Lincoln Perry who has grown so used to wearing the Stepin Fetchit mask that he can’t quite take it off even when invited to. He is not Fetchit – but neither can he alienate himself from him. But he is almost upstaged by John Earl Jelks as a smoldering Brother Rashid, whose very limbs seem to itch to become weapons to strike down the unworthy, and yet who visibly forces himself into an attitude of submission when confronted by Ali, in all his majesty. Ray Fisher’s Ali, meanwhile, is effortlessly charming while being almost completely opaque – the perfect mask fitted to his beautiful face, which is just as it should be. Completing the central quartet, Nikki James walks a fine line as Sonji, revealing her need to be honest about her sexual nature without ever ceasing to seem fundamentally wholesome. She senses the inevitability of her exile very early, and that deepens rather than blunting her, and our, pain. (Richard Masur, Anthony Gaskins and Jeremy Tardy round out the cast as, respectively, William Fox, the studio boss behind Stepin Fetchit, and two mute Fruit of Islam guarding Ali.)

There is a powerful human drama playing out in this story, but the author, Will Power, has chosen to subordinate that human drama to an intellectual one. The mission of the Black Muslims, most fundamentally, is to restore African American men to Manhood with a capital “M.” But do they fail to realize that they need some power that Fetchit has, the power to survive and thrive within ambiguous history, in order to achieve their aims of forcefully overthrowing that history? That’s the question the play is asking.

It’s an interesting question – but not fundamentally a dramatic one. It’s a debating topic. To Power’s credit, he does not stage the debate directly, in the style of Inherit the Wind. Fetchit makes the “case” for his own dignity a number of times, but he isn’t sparring with Ali, who, after all, has invited him in. But precisely because Ali will not debate him, the central relationship in the play has the quality of a dance. For much of the play, both characters are using each other – Ali is using Fetchit to learn this secret “anchor punch” while Fetchit is using Ali to regain respectability in the eyes of a world now embarrassed by the character he created, and (potentially) even to get back into making movies. And, as neither character wants to give the other what he wants, they just keep dancing. (McAnuff and his designers, Riccardo Hernandez and Peter Nigrini, have staged the play in a crisply abstract white space with minimal furniture, no walls and one door – the design is clearly intended to evoke the boxing ring, which adds to the sensation that Ali and Fetchit are dancing around each other as a preliminary to a fight that never exactly takes place.)

The drama, therefore, comes primarily from the peripheral characters. From the moment Fetchit meets Sonji, he sees that she is merely playing the part of a dutiful Muslim wife; a consummate actor himself, he can see through the mask. And Sonji responds immediately by shedding her modest garb and returning to the slinky dresses, the made-up face and hair – the sexual display that she reveled in before her husband’s conversion. This is who she is, and while she loves Ali, she isn’t going to show that love by conforming to his fantasies. He’s going to love her as she is. And he can’t do that.

Brother Rashid, meanwhile, spends the entire play trying one tactic after another to drive Fetchit out of Ali’s inner circle. He’s a man with a violent past and who continues to have a violent temperament – Sonji has his number from the first as a former pimp (like Malcolm X) who hasn’t really changed at all, either in his attitudes towards women or his ability to control his temper. Rashid won’t deign to defend himself to her because of his contempt, but he will to Ali, to whom he protests that joining the Black Muslims was the one thing that got him out of a life of crime and degradation, and that this is why he is so zealous on their behalf.

As I thought about the play afterwards, it occurred to me that there is a close kinship with Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays – but with a crucial inversion. In Shakespeare, Hal is caught between two father figures: his actual father, King Henry IV, who wants him to sober up, toughen up and become more like Hotspur, his antagonist; and Falstaff, his surrogate father, who teaches him craft and sees through the pretensions of the court figures. Similarly, Ali is caught between the Muslims and Fetchit. Like Hal, Ali is an opaque figure, playing his cards close to his chest; like Hal, he tries to keep ties to both fathers as long as he can dance.

But in Shakespeare, Hal must, in the end, brutally reject Falstaff in order to become king. He’s learned whatever he had to learn from him; now he has to cast him aside in order to play his proper role in history. The rejection kills Falstaff, of course – and prepares us for the disturbing ambiguities under the surface of the patriotic Henry V. In Fetch Clay, Make Man, Ali not only doesn’t reject Fetchit, he explicitly claims him, permanently, even though he has already learned the secret of the “anchor punch” and therefore no longer “needs” him in the way he did at first. But Brother Rashid intervenes, without Ali’s knowledge, to drive Fetchit out, and permanently.

This change has no basis in history, and I wondered at the choice, which I suspect was made to end us on a note of sympathy with Ali. And it certainly makes for a dramatic moment between Fetchit and Rashid. But the sympathy for Ali is won at a cost – the cost of reducing him to a pawn of the Muslims. I thought more of him as a man, for deciding to keep Fetchit in his entourage. But I thought less of him as a champion for being so easily out-maneuvered.

And in the context of the ideological debate that is at the heart of this play, Fetchit’s exile feels like a tragic mistake. If Ali had exiled him, as he did Sonji, this would move us to see him as a tragic figure. Exiled by Rashid, it just convinces me that the Black Muslims were a tragically misguided movement as a whole. Which is pretty much what I thought when I came in.

The knockout I expected to end the dance turned out to be a phantom punch, that the champ never delivered. But while it lasted, the dance sure was entertaining.

Fetch Clay, Make Man plays at the New York Theatre Workshop through October 13th.