Dallas — Internationally known playwright, teacher, actor, hip-hop artist Will Power has left the building—or Dallas, to be specific—to join the faculty of Spelman College in Atlanta, one of the country’s most prestigious HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). But after six years or so in the area spent teaching at Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts, serving as the Dallas Theater Center’s Andrew W. Mellon Foundation playwright-in-residence (his “term” at DTC expires at the end of 2018), and doing a bit of moving and shaking in the theater community here, Power isn’t even trying to make a clean getaway.
His play Fetch Clay, Make Man, running through Jan. 13 in the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre Studio Theatre, makes it clear Power has left some roots behind, still growing in the ground of North Texas. “Yes, I moved from Dallas this summer,” Power told TheaterJones in a recent interview. “But I still have energy there, and projects, and it still feels like home.”
In 2015, Power and his longtime collaborator and co-composer Justin Ellington made a Texas-sized splash with the musical Stagger Lee (a world premiere for DTC). This big, filled-to-bursting show fused a century of black music with tales of larger-than-life characters (scary Stagger Lee, lovelorn Frankie and Johnny, runaway Long Lost John) who persist through the decades as sometimes troubling, sometimes uplifting legends of African-American culture.
In Fetch Clay, Make Man, the panoramic lens moves in tighter to focus on two men—boxing legend Muhammad Ali and shuffle-along movie actor Stepin Fetchit, whose real name was Lincoln Perry. It’s an unlikely story about an odd friendship—based on real-life events, but filtered through Power’s abundant imagination. In 1965, when the play is set, Muhammad Ali is a brash, beautiful young man on the rise and Stepin Fetchit a has-been, the living reminder of a degrading racial history most people wanted to forget.
In addition to his new gig at Spelman, Power has had a busy summer and fall: his Richard III riff Seize the King had its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse in California last August (directed by Texas Christian University grad Jaime Castañeda); What Makes a Citizen?, an evening at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, brought him back to Dallas in October, and Fetch Clay, Make Man opened earlier this month.
And, he says, he’s working on three plays and musicals—at least.
Theater Jones caught up with Power by phone from Atlanta.
TheaterJones: You have a home in one of my favorite places along the Hudson River—in Beacon, New York, which has cool old houses, and is close to an interesting museum, Dia Beacon, and all the great places and ‘doings’ up and down the Hudson Valley. From Beacon, you can hop on a train and be in Manhattan in an hour and change. Best of both worlds—why am I telling anyone?
Will Power: I absolutely love Beacon—the river walk is beautiful, and there are mountains you can walk to and climb. When we were thinking about leaving Dallas—and we love Dallas too—we talked about moving back to our house there. But I think maybe it’s a place we’ll think about for later years, once the kids are grown. You looking to rent?
So, I read an article in which you said playwriting began for you with a love of good storytelling. What was it in this tale of Muhammad Ali and Stepin Fetchit that made you think it would be a great story to tell?
The thing is, on the surface level as famous/infamous icons and characters, they seem so different, you know. Stepin Fetchit was looked at as a lazy buffoon, a living embodiment of the stereotype that some in white society had of black people. How laziness came to be part of that I don’t know—it’s crazy, really—because think about it, a large part of the country was built by black people, both in the South and North.
Muhammad Ali was the other end of that: articulate where Stepin Fetchit had a drawl, defiant where Stepin Fetchit wasn’t. He was strong physically, brilliant verbally. So they seem like polar opposites. But a number of years ago, I saw a picture of them together, and I asked: ‘How is that possible that these two people were friends?’ I knew there was a story there when I saw the picture. That picture sent me on a quest to go back and find out what the complexities were behind that picture.
Lincoln Perry was a very shrewd, articulate man, which people may not know—but at the time of the play in 1965, he was very controversial. And Muhammad Ali, too, this was a time when he was trying to solidify who he was going to be. He was still half Cassius Clay [Ali’s birth name] and half Muhammad Ali. He’s not as sure, as confident all the time as you’d think. At 23 years old, he’s the champ of the world, but wrestling with all the issues that go with it.
I began to see the story as a kind of metaphor for the complexities in all of us. How we present ourselves in public, the persona we project—it isn’t necessarily a lie, but often is just one part of us, not our whole selves. It doesn’t tell the full story. This play tries to peel back layers.
Stepin Fetchit was controversial for his many years of playing a supposedly comical character—first in vaudeville, then in silent and ‘talking’ movies. But there was something of the comic in the way Muhammad Ali presented himself too. Was there more common ground there than we might expect?
Well, yes, both of them are comedians. I’ll go a step further and say they are tricksters. The deeper level of the comedian is the trickster, and they are masters at manipulating the camera—first Stepin Fetchit on film, then Ali with the television camera. Ali came of age in that beginning era of television. My father [Chris Wylie], who was a civil rights activist, used to talk about how critical the camera was in the struggle, how different things were when the cameras were on. Muhammad Ali comes at just the beginning of that time when people were starting to manipulate, and be manipulated by, technological engagement and conversation. They try to play tricks, and have tricks played on them, within a massive system, but it’s not an easy thing for either of them. In Stepin Fetchit’s case, there was a price to pay for that.
Part of that for both of them was in knowing the acceptable level of emotion, or willfulness, or anger that a black man could show in those days.
It’s hard to be the only African-American in the room as you’re rising to stardom and fame. They’re both trying to have a self-empowered image, and it’s a really difficult thing to do. With Ali, to see at that time a black person stand up and say ‘I’m pretty, I like to way I look, I’m beautiful’ was crazy. We’ve always said that among ourselves, but it was a radical act to take it into the wider society the way he did. And Stepin Fetchit is dealing with the ghosts and the scars of his career in the ‘20s and ‘30s, and whether he could re-do things in the ‘60s.
Ali basically said then what rappers say all the time now—but it shocked a lot of people, black and white. He said it at a time when black skin was seen as ugly—but then to back it up in the ring [with his wins] was amazing. Stepin Fetchit couldn’t do that on film, but he was a smart, strong man. He negotiated his own contracts, and wrote a column in the Chicago Defender. And on the screen, he tried to take the degradation he was given to play and make something out of it. If you watch those films, and they’re sort of painful still to watch, he’d take that subservience and make something a bit defiant with it in his own way.
He made me very sad and uncomfortable when I watched those movies as a young girl—but at the same time he had kind of a side-eye look at times that might have been a way to say ‘I could move faster, but why would I?’
People can debate about how successful he was with that—but he definitely said that was what he tried to do. It’s like a performing artist who was asked to play a prostitute. “I’m not a prostitute,” she said. “Yeah, but play this and next movie you’ll be famous, you’ll be a star.” ‘But I’m not a prostitute,’ she said. ‘Yeah, but she’s a smart prostitute.’ There’s a cost to doing it, and a cost to not doing it. You have to make a choice, to turn it down, or to do it and try to embed some integrity into the role as best you can.
Did Perry really have much of a choice?
Well, there was a choice for him: to do what he did, or to work for independent black filmmakers. That would have had more dignity, but it was a tough road. Those independent companies had almost no budget; you’d make only a few dollars a month. A lot different from working in Hollywood—and Stepin Fetchit was the first African-American actor to get a screen credit: Will Rogers and Stepin Fetchit in Judge Priest (1934).
The audience comes in thinking we know something about these two characters. What do you do to get past our assumptions, to make us see them differently, or more deeply?
That’s the work of every dramatist, really. I’m not saying it’s easy, but you try to create empathy, you try to humanize the characters—even the heavies of the piece, the studio head William Fox, and Brother Rashid of the Nation of Islam. They serve as antagonists, in a way, but they aren’t really bad guys—they’re also victims of forces that push them in one way or another. You recognize their flaws, but you’re also peeling back the complexities of what they had to go through.
I remember Stepin Fetchit; my younger siblings don’t. You have several generations in the audience, and you’re trying to speak to them all.
People who are 40 and under may not know who Stepin Fetchit is. For me, in my 40s, there are remnants of memory, seeing him in the ‘70s—an Uncle Tom, a traitor to his race, you know. The funny thing, though, is that the idea of Stepin Fetchit, that image, is something that still exists today—and young people recognize it, for example, in Kanye West’s kissing Donald Trump’s butt. We still struggle with the descendants of that image. So it’s interesting to see young people in the audience making those connections with their own lives.
And yes, they know Muhammad Ali, but most of them don’t know him as a man in his 20s. And [in the play] they see that ‘oh, he was young like me, struggling and not sure of himself—not the three times champ.’ Baby boomers have a different entry point than the younger people—but everyone finds a connection. When we first did the play [in 2010], we met a few older African-American people who actually said it was too painful for them to watch anything about Stepin Fetchit; they didn’t want to see it. Usually by the end of the play they were cheering—but for my parents’ generation it was important to cast off these demons.
But Lincoln Perry never was able to shed that image?
No, he never did. That also was true of actors like Hattie McDaniel [Mammy in Gone with the Wind] and others. But Lincoln Perry got the worst of it. It’s interesting, I saw a pilot he shot that looked like Sanford & Son—Flip Wilson played the son—but I’m not sure it was that same series. He’s brilliant. Ultimately, though, he was too hot, the TV executives said, ‘We can’t touch him, we’d get too much backlash.’
My point is that for people like my parents, who were on the picket lines, my father in SNCC and both of them very active, they felt they had to aggressively, violently get rid of these images. But me, I come from a privileged place, sort of post-Civil Rights, so I can look back at these older things with a more nuanced eye. I could never have done this play in the ‘60s or ‘70s—or the ‘80s even. A theater wouldn’t have produced it.
Now, post-Obama, I think we can do pieces like this.
This is jumping back to an earlier part of our conversation, but I was thinking about Key & Peele’s ‘anger translator’ for President Obama. It’s still a reality that black men have to hide or camouflage their feelings in public.
Oh, definitely that’s still a thing, especially if you’re trying to move up in ‘the system.’ The thing about Muhammad Ali is that in some ways he was in the system, but also outside it as someone with the Nation of Islam. But a public man like Obama, or women who might hear a sexist remark, they have to decide whether to take it to people, or to figure out how to do something, but maintain….Obama I see as a strong man, but he definitely had to work with that. If Donald Trump were a person of color, he wouldn’t be able to get away with much of what he says. Think about having a tape of Obama talking about grabbing a lady by her private parts. It would have been over so fast.
You talked about Ali’s poetry. You have a background as a hip-hop artist, and you’ve also used it—and other styles of language or music—in your works for the stage. Were you ever tempted to use any kind of ‘heightened’ language in Fetch Clay, Make Man—to write it in a more ‘poetical’ vein?
That’s an interesting question. I think most of my works do have a heightened sensibility—and it’s not always hip-hop. In Stagger Lee, that [heightening] was in the music. With Seize the King, I worked with iambic pentameter. That was really fun, because it was such an archaic poetic structure and sensibility.
But though most of my stuff is some sort of heightened language, Fetch Clay, Make Man is not. I was exploring, seeing what it would be like to put myself into a play that presents as a straight-play in realistic language. But if you listen, you’ll hear that I’m pushing that language to the limits. Des McAnuff, one of the titans—who directed this play at the McCarter [at Princeton] and in New York—told the actors in rehearsal to ‘think on the line.’ He said you have to approach this text almost like Shakespeare: even though it sounds natural, it has to keep moving, it has a rhythm. You can’t take a whole bunch of pauses like in Stanislavsky.
You have to keep that forward-leaning, ‘walking’ rhythm of iambic pentameter….
Yeah, yeah—so that if and when you do take a pause, it has weight.
And doing it like that gave me more room for subtext in the play; heightened language removes some of the ability to do that.
Is this production of Fetch Clay very different from others you’ve seen in the past several years?
I’ve got to say I’m interested in how Dallas audiences will respond to the play, because it hasn’t had much exposure in the South. America’s a big place, and there’s a lot of different kinds of history. I’m thinking of a line the studio head William Fox says, that he ‘chose to be white.’ And on the East Coast, that line gets a chuckle or a laugh—an ‘I know where he’s coming from’ kind of laugh—but I don’t know if audiences here will know what he means by that as a Jewish man at the time [when Jews, Irish, Italian immigrants weren’t always considered ‘white.’]
And I have to say I’m blown away by what [director] Nataki Garrett is doing with the play. This is our first time working together, and she’s truly phenomenal. There are certain ways she frames things that I’ve not seen done before. For a big press conference at the end of Act One she leaves the actors very exposed in a way that’s new. People are talking in the hallways behind [the actors onstage], you can hear and not see them, and it totally goes along with the themes of the play. Her take on it is delicious—not to take away from other productions, which have been great—but the play has been produced quite a bit, and this production is really, really juicy.