Talking by phone with multi-award-winning playwright/ rap artist Will Power, the electricity of his creative energy practically flashes over the air waves. And it’s a lot more than the suggestion of his name. It’s the end of his rehearsal day but when I apologize for adding one more thing, he says, “I’m on a high,” and I certainly believe him. His latest play, “Fetch Clay, Make Man” is having its world premiere at McCarter Theater, with previews beginning on Friday, January 8. Opening night is Friday, January 15. The work was commissioned by McCarter and artistic director Emily Mann has been “midwifing” this work for the past two and a half years, incorporating the direction of Des McAnuff for the birthing with original music by Justin Ellington and sound design by Darron L. West.
The genesis of the play was a bookstore window in San Francisco where Power saw a photo of the legendary boxer Muhammad Ali and the old-time movie actor known as Stepin Fetchit. “My first reaction was shock,” says Power. Like any creative theater artist, his next thought was, “This would be a great play. I didn’t know what the play would be about or what the conflict was, but a play, a different play.” The event that precipitated the photo was an actual meeting between the two men. Why they were together has spawned various explanations but Power chooses to opt for what the two men themselves have reported. “Stepin Fetchit, to his dying day, claimed this is what happened and Ali never contradicted this premise.”
According to Power, this was the time when Ali had knocked out Sonny Liston the year before and was the champion; however, people thought he was just a “fad” and didn’t honor him sufficiently. “Ali was trying to clinch his name on the title, trying to define his image, and had changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali,” says Power. According to the story he sent for Stepin Fetchit because he had heard that he was the only person still alive who knew about the famous delay-strategy punch of the great black fighter Jack Johnson, who had won the World Heavy-Weight Boxing title in 1908.
“There are similarities in the two boxers other than their historical places and style,” says Power. “Years later, when Ali was no longer allowed to box, he went to see the Broadway play about Jackson, ‘The Great White Hope’ and had said, “if you substitute white woman for religion, that’s my story.’” Naysayers think that Ali summoned Fetchit just looking for publicity, “to give the San Francisco press something to write about.” That’s not Power’s story.
Ali’s legend is familiar to all of us. But Stepin Fetchit is a vague image of an African-American actor who was known for his subservient screen performances and whose name is synonymous with Uncle Tomism. Power fills me in with a quick history of Fetchit. Born in Florida of West Indian parents, his real name was Lincoln Theodore Monroe Perry. Very early on, he became an actor, performing on the vaudeville circuit where he developed his stock character, the comic lazy guy. “He wasn’t the first to do this character but what he did was become the first to introduce it into the movie industry, which was just moving into sound.” Unlike his screen persona, Stepin Fetchit was a smart man who negotiated his own contracts, made lots of money, and at one time was a reporter for a Chicago newspaper. He also managed to be “one of the first Hollywood bad boys,” enjoying life and getting into trouble. The prejudice and bigotry of the film industry then boxed him in. He was an actor ready for another role, which he wasn’t allowed to have.
“Fetch Clay, Make Man” is set in the mid 1960s with Power’s creative lens sifting through the legends of the two men and the events that were part of the civil rights movement. He knows the territory, explaining this time of political unrest and rebellion. “Both my parents were part of the revolution. My mother was a communist. It didn’t turn out the way they thought it would but they laid it down.”
He was born in New York City but one day, as his mother was tromping along an icy street with snow sifting into young Will’s boots, she decided a move to California was in order. Power grew up in the San Francisco Bay area’s Afro-centric community during the ’70s, where he describes his family and community as “lots of artists, creativity, and drugs — mix them all up.” A heady brew. Just as we all learn, his understanding of life grew from the ideas in his family and community.
According to an article written by Jennifer Dunning in the February 10, 2006, New York Times, Power’s birth name is William Wylie. He was always Will but when the neighborhood types added the Power and it stuck.
In his artistic statement, Power says he was taught his history in “broad strokes of black and white. Basically black was good (except for those times when black folks fell under the spell of the Man), and white was bad (except for those few good white folks). We were told that Stepin Fetchit was not only a disgrace, but a traitor to his people for popularizing such vile, stereotypical images. And Muhammad Ali, for every kid in the ghetto, I think, was the living personification of God.”
Power’s earlier play, “Seven,” based on Aeschylus’ “Seven Gates of Thebes,” looked at a particular period in history and cranked it up, turned it about on the turntable of his imagination to bring a new perspective to this story of Oedipus and his two battling sons. I was lucky to see a production of it at the New York Theater Workshop in February, 2006, and was completely blown away by his time-shifting history that invited me to forget about usual theater format and fly right into his world of hip-hop dancers, a disc jockey mistress of ceremonies, and bouncing words. So, with “Fetch Clay,” be prepared for a trip.
Power developed his presentation style as a youngster in San Francisco, under the influence of performance artist Rhodesa Jones, who directed his first play, and the jazz composer/philosopher Sun Ra. “It’s all about passing on the knowledge,” says Power. “I learned at every turn, from people in the library, people on the street corner or the barber shop.” From this environment, he developed as a storyteller. More formal “learning” came during two years at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts and San Francisco State University, where he earned a degree in theater.
Power built a solo show called “Flow,” which gave him exposure across the country and internationally. A theme that both follows and leads him is “What is the relationship between one generation and another?”
Surely, the most influential person in his life was his grandfather, George Gregory, Jr, the first black All-American basketball player who later became a civic leader in Harlem. “I owe him a lot,” says Power. “If I said something, he would challenge me different ways and press me to think ‘outside the box.’” In a more direct introduction to theater his grandfather took him to see “The Wiz” on Broadway. No youngster is immune to that magic. In Power’s artistic statement, he quotes his grandfather, “‘History is not static,’ my grandfather would say, ‘it’s a moving, slippery, elusive thing, that constantly morphs and changes depending on who you are, and where you at.’”
This is a major key to entering the world of “Fetch Clay.” Power doesn’t want to re-write history but rather “fill in the many missing or misunderstood pages of the history book.” Opening up to the ’60s culture, he is exploring and finding new connections and corrections with the gaps in community, time and place shifting with the information of his youth.
Power loves to teach. “Some artists do it just to get the grants,” he says. “But I love it. I feel it’s my responsibility to spur young people to learn and question the stories that they are told.” Recently, he traveled to Tanzania and then to South Africa on a state-department sponsored tour. “My teaching manifests in different ways. I held hip-hop workshops, theater workshops, performed shows, even lectured at Cape Town University.”
With all his activity and energy, he makes a big place for his own family. Power is married and lives in Beacon, New York, with his wife and twins: Omar-Sol and Sofia. They were together for Christmas. And Power’s mother will be flying east to be in Princeton for the opening of her son’s play.
For those of us who fear for the lively art of theater as we see our children plugged in to earphones and Wii’s, Power offers optimism. In an article in American Theatre magazine, he says he thinks human beings will feel “an excited urge to renew the irreplaceable feelings of live, human interaction and connection….The theater of tomorrow will be a true bridge from one community to another, from one culture to the next.” Let’s begin.
“Fetch Clay, Make Man,” Berlind Theater at the McCarter, previews start Friday, January 8, opening night, Friday, January 15, 91 University Place, Princeton, Drama based on a bond between heavyweight fighter Muhammad Ali and Hollywood actor Stepin Fetchit. 609-258-2787. www.mccarter.org.