Muhammad Ali

Iconic Figures: Debbie Allen directs story of Muhammad Ali and Stepin Fetchit

Culver City actor Bruce Nozick is making his debut at the venue a half mile from his house—the Kirk Douglas Theatre, where he’s been a season-ticket-holder since it opened.

The show is “Fetch Clay, Make Man,” directed by Debbie Allen and featuring Ray Fisher as Muhammad Ali and Edwin Lee Gibson as Stepin Fetchit, running from June 25 to July 16 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

The play, written by Will Power, debuted off-Broadway in 2013. Fisher created the role he now reprises. Gibson helped him create the role of Fetchit, but this is his first time performing in the show.

It’s a story of friendship and two people who are trying to control their legacy. Moving back and forth between the 1930s and 1960s, it shows Ali (formerly Cassius Clay) in the days leading up to one of his most anticipated fights as he forms an unlikely friendship with controversial Hollywood star Stepin Fetchit. 

“It’s extraordinary to see these characters come to life through Will Power’s creative and dynamic writing,” said Allen. “The play really paints a picture of the climate of Hollywood in the 1930s when Step was the highest-paid Black actor of the time, and then in 1965 when heavyweight champion Ali prepared for his second bout with Sonny Liston and had to face the ramifications and tensions around declaring his embrace of the Nation of Islam in the wake of the Malcolm X assassination.” 

The show explores the bond that forms between them, one young, one old, both trying to form their public personas. It’s based on actual events and draws on the power and poetry of Ali with the humor and irreverence of Fetchit’s act. It examines the meaning of strength, resilience and pride.

“It is a fantastic piece,” Nozick said. “It is such an interesting look into a part of history that nobody really knew, this friendship between Muhammad Ali and Stepin Fetchit.”

Nozick plays the part of William Fox, a hardball Hollywood agent, who helped make Fetchit into the first Black film star to make $1 million. Nozick has a long list of television credits, but he says his heart is in live theater.

“The character of William Fox is right up my alley,” Nozick said. “I’ve played a lot of agents and wheeler-dealer type characters. The romance of old Hollywood has always attracted me. I love period stuff and my part of the show takes place in the 1930s.”

Nozick was also excited to be part of a show directed by Allen, whom he describes as both a cultural icon and a visionary director. He said that while some directors can pull great performances from actors and others have a great vision of a show and all its technical elements, Allen excels at both.

“She has such a great vision for this show,” Nozick said. “From Day One, we had all the designers telling us what they had planned in terms of the lighting and the projections and the way it’s going to seamlessly flow from period to period and scene to scene—which is all from Debbie’s concept. I was like, this is going to be beautiful to watch.”

As a director, he said, she is supportive, loving and has a fantastic way of connecting with the actors.

“She’s just a dream,” Nozick said. “We have become such a tight company and we’ve become that way very quickly and it started with Debbie. From the head down, she just brings such a sense of community and love to the whole process.”

Allen, an actor, dancer, choreographer and singer-songwriter, has had a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame since 1991. The principal choreographer for the television series, “Fame,” in the 1980s (and the actor playing the dance teacher), she opened and runs a dance academy in Los Angeles. Nozick said she begins each rehearsal with 20 minutes of stretching exercises.

“It does not escape me who she is, what she’s done and how long she’s been around,” Nozick said. “Being led through this by a choreographer, dancer, actress phenom is just…really, pinch me. I am living my best dream right now.”

Nozick said he’s been a fan of Gibson and his role in the show “The Bear.” In addition to Gibson’s television acting, he has an extensive stage acting background, including working with the Peter Brooks company in Paris for two years and performing all over the world.

“He’s an artist and he has captured the essence of Stepin Fetchit,” Nozick said. “He’s so good. It’s hard to find the words to describe it. Most of my stuff is with him, so that’s just been such a blast.”

Fisher created the role off-Broadway in 2013 and then made his Broadway debut in the 2022 revival of “The Piano Lesson,” which was recently nominated for a Tony for Best Revival of a Play. He’s performed as the superhero Victor Stone/Cyborg in the DC universe. Nozick said he’s had to be on a strict exercise and dietary plan to play the role of Muhammad Ali

“This guy is such a serious, serious actor,” Nozick said. “He’s in incredible shape and he’s a really, really fine actor. He is bringing such a spirit and heart of Muhammad Ali to the show. We are blessed with an incredibly talented cast—just amazing—and Edwin and Ray are leading the way and bringing incredible energy.”

With such talent, Nozick said it has been a joy to go to work and people are thrilled to be a part of the cast. Other performers include Wilkie Ferguson II and Alexis Floyd.

The production at the Kirk Douglas Theatre is a collaboration between Center Theatre Group and the SpringHill Company. The latter is a studio team founded by LeBron James and Maverick Carter. “Fetch Clay, Make Man” is their first theatrical stage endeavor.

While the show is a decade old, Nozick believes it will be even more powerfully received now than it was in 2013 because of all that has been happening in the country. He points out that right now Black stories are at the forefront of theater, film and television as the nation confronts its history of how people have been mistreated or misunderstood.

“The play addresses a lot of that,” Nozick said. “It addresses the Nation of Islam, it addresses a lot of subject matter that most people haven’t been exposed to or haven’t really been educated about. It’s very, very moving in that way.”

And for those people who haven’t yet returned to the theater since COVID, Nozick said this is a good show to do so. 

“I would love for people just to come back to the theater,” Nozick said. “There’s nothing like that live experience. There’s nothing like being in that room with the performers and having that experience together.”

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