By Darlene Donloe
CULVER CITY — Alexis Floyd plays the lone female character in award-winner Will Power’s drama, “Fetch Clay, Make Man,” directed by Debbie Allen, and currently enjoying a successful run at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through July 16.
The petite and feisty actress, who plays Sonji Clay, the wife of boxing icon Muhammad Ali, holds her own amongst a stellar cast of impressive male counterparts including Drama Desk nominee and “Justice League’s” Ray Fisher, who is reprising his off-Broadway role as Muhammad Ali; Obie Award-winner and “The Bear’s” Edwin Lee Gibson (Stepin Fetchit), who helped develop the character with Power originally; Wilkie Ferguson III (Brother Rashid); and Bruce Nozick (William Fox).
Floyd radiates on stage, subtly and cleverly attacking the role with such fervor she steals every scene she’s in.
There were so many layers to Sonji Clay, Floyd couldn’t wait to bring her to life on stage.
“The first pull for me was Debbie Allen,” said Floyd, who works with Allen on the ABC hit drama, “Grey’s Anatomy.” “She came up to me on Grey’s. I hadn’t seen the script but I said yes. I go where she goes.
“If she had asked me to be in charge of snacks, I would have said yes. The piece is so poetic. I was really impressed at the truth that Will Power puts into the one woman on the stage. She’s only in five scenes but is responsible for telling the truth. There was life, fear and instability. She is so brave. I struggle to be as brave as Sonji Clay.”
One of the things Floyd likes about Sonji Clay is her ability to challenge Ali, whom she continues to call Cassius.
“She was fearless asking him about relationships to his faith even to the detriment of their marriage,” Floyd said. “She was a profoundly strong woman. I was daunted at stepping into her shoes. She had a lot to teach me.”
When choosing roles, Floyd said she has “to love them even if I don’t like them.”
“I need to see their humanness and pain,” she said. “Even if you’re not enthusiastic about the choices they make, it’s essential that you love yourself.”
In preparation for playing Sonji Clay, Floyd said she did some research but found there wasn’t a lot of information on her.
“Preparation, which includes research, is an important piece for me,” Floyd said. “I do a lot of prepping on my own. If I don’t have the experiences she had, I connect parallel experiences in my own life.”
Floyd describes the relationship between Sonji and Muhammad as “beautiful.”
“They were best friends,” she said. “In a way, I feel like I’m doing ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ There was respect there. Then the Nation (Nation of Islam) put a devastating wedge between them. They were intentionally trying to break the marriage apart.
“They didn’t like the way she dressed. They told her she wasn’t good enough. He needed that much affection and validation. That’s why Clay fell for what the nation was telling him,” Floyd added.
“Sonji said, ‘They stole my man’s mind.’ She knew how vulnerable he was to the ideology of others.”
The play tells the story of the days leading up to Ali’s highly anticipated 1965 rematch with Sonny Liston, who he defeated a year before to become heavyweight champion.
The heavyweight boxing champion forms an unlikely friendship with the controversial former Hollywood star Stepin Fetchit.
During that same time, Clay had converted to the Nation of Islam and was committed to matters of faith. He reprimanded Sonji when she decided to switch attire that covered most of her body, back to secular garb.
“What I like about Sonji is that she was not afraid to be her own island,” Floyd said. “She has a spark in her eyes that reminds me of Nina Simone and Angela Davis. She has this clarity. She sees through the mask. She’s not someone you tell something and she just falls for it.”
“Fetch Clay, Make Man,” a true story, explores the improbable bond that forms between two drastically different and influential cultural icons. Clay, a handsome and audacious young man, and Fetchit, a resentful former actor.
Together they fight to form their public personas and shape their legacies amidst the struggle of the civil rights movement of the mid-1960s.
Described as powerful, poetic, humorous and irreverent “Fetch Clay, Make Man” examines the meaning of strength, resilience and pride.
Those same three words also could describe Floyd’s character, a former girl from the streets, who frequented the clubs and became the wife of Muhammad Ali. The couple, married on Aug. 14, 1964, but divorced by 1966 amid conflict over Ali’s devotion to the Nation of Islam.
“Debbie [Allen] brought this to our attention,” said Floyd, a Cleveland native. “She is very aware that a theater is a temple as much as it is a theater. She has set us up to invite the ancestors to be part of the experience every night. It feels visited. She encourages us to stay open and come be honored.”
When she became an actress, Floyd said she expected “to wedge a space in a very white industry.”
Turns out, acting wasn’t her first love. It was music.
Floyd, who appeared on “The Good Fight” (CBS) and “Inventing Anna” (Netflix), has studied violin since the age of 3. She was a member of the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra and had a deep interest in classical music. She also studied at the Cleveland School of Ballet and was a competitive figure skater at the Cleveland Skating Club.
“I was so busy, I didn’t learn how to cook,” said Floyd, who has a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in musical theatre from Carnegie Mellon University. “I became an actress after my mother took me to the East Cleveland Community Theatre, which was doing ‘The Wiz.’ I auditioned.
“I remember putting on the Dorothy dress. I was 13. I felt like I was home. As much as I love music, I battled with the isolation. The theater was so collaborative. I was motivated by the presence of others. It gave me freedom in a way. It was a journey of discovering who I am. I get closer to myself whenever I jump into someone else’s shoes.”
During her career, Floyd starred off-Broadway in “If Sand Were Stone,” “Mitad Del Mundo” and “Wanderlust.” Her feature credits include “Life’s Poison” and her television credits include “The Bold Type.”
When she first started in show business, Floyd expected to play a lot of best friends.
“I thought it would be like what I saw on television,” she said. “I never thought a show would ever be about me. I didn’t see the Black women in power in the creative industry. I never saw Debbie (Allen) or Shonda (Rhimes) coming.
“These two have welcomed me into their world,” she added. “It has absolutely changed my life. I feel this embrace and curiosity. The power of the Black woman. I didn’t expect it. I just want as many people as possible to sit in Debbie’s (Allen) house and let it move through you. This show isn’t one to miss.”
“Fetch Clay, Make Man,” is playing at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Shows are at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays through July 18. Tickets ranging from $30 to $79 are available by calling 213-628-2772, or visiting centertheatregroup.org.
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at email@example.com.