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The Playwright’s Playground: Legacies and Storytelling – An Interview with Playwright Will Power of ‘Fetch Clay, Make Man’

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Will Power is an award-winning playwright and performer, rapper, and international educator. Currently on the faculty at The Meadows School of the Arts/SMU, Power is also the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Playwright in Residence with the Dallas Theatre Center. Early in Power’s career he was a key member in two critically acclaimed avant-garde music groups, Midnight Voices and the Omar Sosa Sextet.

Will Power, playwright.

Will Power. Courtesy of Round House Theatre.

Long considered a pioneer of “hip-hop theater,” Power views theatre as a vehicle for transformation and engagement. In 2005, Power earned two Helen Hayes nominations for his solo performance, Flow (Outstanding Non-Resident Production, Outstanding Lead Actor, Non-Resident Production.) As a Playwright, Will Power sees himself like a secular preacher.

“Theater to me is like secular church. That’s kind of how I look at it and that’s what inspired me in the community. I saw the importance of that and the electricity and aliveness of that.” That throughline permeates all of Power’s writing, “engaging community with hopefully some provocative things to think about,” he shares.

As an artist Will Power is committed to how one generation hands down its stories to the next. His new play at Round House Theatre, Fetch Clay, Make Man, is an exhilarating, complex exploration about two polar opposites and unlikely friends, Muhammad Ali and Stepin Fetchit. For Will Power it’s also a personal one.

Sydney-Chanele: You are an Award-Winning Playwright, Actor, Performer, Rapper, and an Educator. But what made you want to be a Playwright?

Will: What made me want to be a Playwright? You know, the storytelling. I feel like I’ve always been drawn and excited by both telling stories and hearing amazing stories. It didn’t necessarily have to be playwriting or the theatre as a form – although there are probably reasons why that is. But I’ve always enjoyed a good story as a kid, hearing some great storytellers in my community, and what you can learn from it and what you can pass on . . . and the way you can engage people and spark places or commonalities where other people can engage outside of themselves.

I love when a piece of theater doesn’t just spark conversation between the actor and the playwright and the audience, but when the audience starts engaging with conversation and debates. There is something amazing to me about the live arena. What makes the theater really unique to me is that it’s LIVE. I think that is something that is really exciting to me and also the reason why I am a Playwright. It’s that live ability to tell a story with an actor and hear the words live right there. That’s what really makes it distinct I think.

Have you ever tried your hand at television or film?

No, not really. I’ve done some television and film as an actor a little bit. I’ve never really written for it. I guess I’d be open to it. But I have never pursued it with the passion that it probably takes in the way that I have pursued the theater. I’m not against it and there are a lot of benefits like reaching a mass audience. . .

But it sounds like the theater has your heart. You spoke about your childhood and being enraptured by storytelling. When in your childhood or later did you know that you wanted a life in the theater and the arts?

It’s interesting looking back on it – and this is another reason why I’m a Playwright – that I was introduced at a very young age to the idea that theater could be a vehicle for transformation and engagement. When I was ten-years-old, my mother put me in this Children’s Theatre company in my neighborhood. It was an Afrocentric Educational Science Fiction Children’s Theatre that only California can produce. The woman who started it used to be a dancer with Sun Ra, and she started this theater company that was based on social political messages with a lot of humor and based on Sun Ra’s philosophies about black people in outer space and all this kind of stuff.

We would do these shows and I would see how parents and people in the community would come to these original plays and laugh and be stirred. It was really crazy to experience that. So now I guess that’s kinda been my motto and I’ve done it on different levels: The Community Theater level and I’ve done it on Off -Broadway . But it’s always been about engaging community with hopefully some provocative things to think about. There is something special about those theater places that actually foster engagement right there. Like the way it’s structured, you come out and there is a bar there, there is a café so the conversation continues right there.

Theater to me is like secular church. Not to get all corny, but we are like secular preachers. That’s kind of how I look at it and that’s what inspired me in the community. I grew up in a culturally rich community but there also was a lot of danger and drama. So a lot of these plays that we did, and as I carried forth in high school, was all about reflecting what was going on. You didn’t have to wait years to do it. I saw the importance of that and the electricity and aliveness of that.

Your name is awesome. Is Will Power a family name or a name given out of self-determination?

Well it’s deep. I was born Wylie (last name), and then in the 80’s I got Will Power as my rap name – my MC name. It wasn’t a family name, and I was going to change it legally, but then six or seven years ago my father was like, “How are you going to go and change your name? Don’t change it. Don’t change it until I’m dead and gone.” I didn’t think he really cared. Then when he died last year… I’m kinda both. I’m Will Power but I still have that Wylie side, and I respect that about my father.

What was the evolution of bringing Fetch Clay, Make Man to the stage? How did the concept come to you? And, what about the story inspired you so much that you wanted to write a play?

It goes back to school, being five or six, and being in the Black nationalistic environment in San Francisco/Oakland at that time. I learned about these heroic figures but it was very cut and dry – Martin Luther King was a great man. Malcolm X was a perfect Saint. Harriet Tubman was perfect Saint… the flip side was look at these traitors to our race. One of the people we learned about at the Malcolm X School was Stepin Fetchit.

One of these Brothers that was teaching us showed us this Black history film narrated by Bill Cosby that showed Stepin Fetchit. The teacher was like, “Brothers and Sisters never be like this. He’s a traitor to our race.” And that’s how I learned about Stepin Fetchit in the Seventies. It was broad strokes.

Muhammad Ali was like our Superhero. I don’t even know what the equivalent is of what he was to us back then as a kid. Muhammad Ali was everything we want to be as a black boy. He was smart and articulate. He could fight. He was courageous. He was good-looking, righteous, and political…

So you’re saying that there’s no equivalent of that today?

There might be. There might be, but I can’t think of who that is. I can’t think of a athlete who is a political figure and is articulate and poetic… So my point is, Stepin Fetchit and Muhammad Ali were like polar opposites.

When did you first discover the Muhammad Ali/ Stepin Fetchit connection?

Fast forward to 2005, I was at home visiting the city and I went to Marcus Bookstore. (the country’s oldest Black-owned bookstores, Marcus Bookstore recently closed – gentrification in The Fillmore District in San Francisco. There’s still a store in Oakland.) They were the place you would go for books on the Black diaspora.

I saw this big, giant poster book of Muhammad Ali. It was this huge book with all of these pictures in it and one of the pictures was with Muhammad Ali and Stepin Fetchit. I said, “What the heck is this?” I flashed back to 1975 when I learned about Stepin Fetchit, and I was like, “How can they be in a picture together? It said Stepin Fetchit – Personal Advisor/ Secret Strategist.” I said, “How can that be possible.” I didn’t understand how that could be possible because I had learned that they were polar opposites. You know what I mean. At that moment I said there was a play in there. I don’t know what it is, but there is a play there.

The idea to write a play immediately came to you when you saw the photo?

Immediately. I said that’s a play. As I started to research it I found out this out this whole thing that Stepin Fetchit taught Muhammad Ali “the punch” that knocked out Sonny Liston, and that Stepin Fetchit learned it from Jack Johnson. I said, “That’s crazy!” No one has ever found out if that was true or whether Stepin Fetchit and Muhammad Ali were just pulling people’s leg. But they never admitted otherwise. To the day Stepin Fetchit died, he was like, “I taught Ali that punch.” And, Ali has never said anything different. I don’t know if it’s mythology or if it’s really true. Either way it’s the premise for a darn interesting play.

Go through the process of how this idea became a play.

It was an idea in my head, and then I was approached by the McCarter Theatre to develop the piece. I got a Commission from McCarter in 2007. It was a really big Commission so I had access to Princeton’s libraries, and I had a fund where I could travel to Chicago and L.A. to do some research and look at the old films of Stepin Fetchit. I talk to people who used to be in the Nation of Islam and who knew Fetchit in Chicago. I had a lot of support to research. Then it opened in 2010 (starring the legendary Ben Vereen.) After that I continued to do work on it. Not every day but periodically.

Since the McCarter, how many rewrites and updates have you done for the version of the play that we’ll see at Round House Theatre?

There’s a lot. There’s a lot. Since McCarter there’s been many rewrites and many changes. I would say when it premiered in New York, that script to this script is not that different texturally. But the real profound, amazing thing is what Derrick Sanders is doing with it and what the actors are doing with it. What they did in New York was phenomenal as well but it was very different.

This is the first time since that it’s ever been done outside that original production. The production at McCarter was the same production that moved to New York. This is the first time it has been done with a different vision outside of the original. I’m excited about that.

Do you believe the script is done now?

I think the script is done. I think I finished the script when we premiered it last year in New York. I think I said what I wanted to say and now it’s about different actors and different directors. What they will see in the D.C. area is the first of what that interpretation is. I worked on it for about six to six-and-half years. I think it’s said.

Let’s talk more about your writing process. How long did it take to write Fetch Clay, Make Man? How did your process for this play differ from your other works?

Every play is different. I kind of feel like what I’m trying to do with my work . . . I’m trying to be the guy that heaven forbid if they wipe out all of the Playwrights in America (I hope that never happens) I’d be the cat that can do all styles. Some people just do solo performances, some just do straight plays, some people just do musicals. I try to do all of it, and I try to do all of it well. I don’t know if I’m successful or not. So I know how to do a solo performance – Solo Theater – I’ve done that for many years and toured the world. I can teach that. I know Hip-Hip theatre – I helped create it – I can teach that. Now I’m working on traditional theater, like naturalistic plays, and musicals. That’s the cycle that I’m in now.

I feel like every play is different as far the writing process. With Fetch Clay, Make Man it was heavy research. There was so much research until I just became over saturated with research and the story just came spilling out. I researched it for about a year and a couple of months before I started to write it. I like quiet places and I hear the dialogue. It’s all about the rhythm for me. It’s all rhythm. If I write the songs for a musical, I’ll get the rhythm first then the words will come. With a straight play the words come with the rhythm, but it’s heavy rhythm. I like to hear the actors given something meaty to work on.

You said you like quiet places, but do you ever listen to specific styles of music for inspiration when you are writing a play?

I can’t have any music. I can’t have anything. I don’t even like to look at anything on the walls. Some people write with music playing, I need blank – just a computer. When I’m working on a musical or a straight play I’ll listen to a lot of music around it. With Fetch Clay, I was listening to music of the Sixties and I was looking at pictures and rhythms of people talking. But when I’m actually writing it I don’t listen to anything, I don’t look at anything, I’m just in it.

What surprised you in your research about Stepin Fetchit?

The thing that surprised me – and about Ali too really – was how complex he was and how complex that time was. Rosco Orman is amazing as Stepin Fetchit. The whole cast is amazing but what Roscoe does with this character is unbelievable.

I always that Stepin fetchit was someone who played the Uncle Tom shufflin’ to make money and that was that. And to an extent that was true, he did play the Uncle Tom shufflin’ stereotype to make money. But what I didn’t realize is that he also negotiated his own contracts and he was trying to push it in Hollywood and open it up for other things. He was also very shrewd, he wasn’t necessarily a Saint, but he was brilliant. He was a journalist! I didn’t know that. He had a column for the Chicago Defender. He was an articulate man and a brilliant comic actor. His idea was he was going to play that role and break into Hollywood with that stereotype then move onto other stuff. Of course he was never allowed to do much anything else.

Even if you watch those old movies – and I’ve watched quite a few now – it’s brilliant what he’s doing. The question is, is he doing it because he’s a dumb African-American or is he doing it to trick the master to get out of work. He rides it so on the fence- you really can’t tell. For some people, even back then, he was portraying the stereotype. For others he was crafty. He was the trickster. He would do what he could with what he had. Now there were other Black actors that didn’t play those roles but most of them by and large were those in so called Race Films. Which you could do, and some of them were pretty good.

But those actors weren’t as widely known as Stepin Fetchit.

That’s right. Stepin Fetchit wanted to be a star. He was like, “I’m just as good as Charlie Chaplin.” He wanted to have the budget, he wanted to have the money and for better or worst he wanted to have the acclaim. He didn’t want to do just the Race pictures only seen by a small segment at that time. I talk about this in the play. His name was Stepin Fetchit; his name itself is derogatory. At the same time he was the first African- American actor to get a screen credit. So before that, African-American actors were in it and they may have had a role, “Yes, Sir – No, Sir,” but they had no screen credits. They were like pieces of furniture. You know what I mean. He was the first after “starring Will Rogers…” and right after that he would have a big marquee. You could argue that’s not any better because his name was Stepin Fetchit. But some would argue that’s a step. “I have a derogatory name but at least I have a name.”

Did a Hollywood Studio create his name, Stepin Fetchit, or did he?

His name was created in Vaudeville. That’s the thing; he wasn’t the only one with that played this role. This was an archetype role that was popular with white and black audiences. Almost like, I don’t want to say like Tyler Perry… but stereotypical, those were archetypical roles. He was Stepin Fetchit before he became a movie star. He had a duo routine where he was “Step” and another was “Fetchit” who I think later dropped out because “Step” became a soloist. Stepin Fetchit became his public persona. Other actors did it, but the thing is he was the first actor to really perfect it for mainstream film.

Being the only representation of a whole culture is a problem. It’s like Flava Flav who is like modern day Stepin Fetchit. Flava Flav is still the same as he was in the 1980’s. Flava Flav has not changed. In that television show they’ve got rid of Chuck D, that got rid of Professor Griff and then it becomes this buffoonery. You don’t have Chuck D to balance it. That’s just like Stepin Fetchit. You put him in a film with other black actors – he’s still a fool, but it’s different – it’s actually pretty interesting. But when it’s just him and Hattie McDaniel, God rest her soul; doing the best they can, excuse it. You know what I mean.

What do you hope audiences take away with the Fetch Clay, Make Man experience?

With all of these characters, and I weave a lot of different things together. I hope people go back into history particularly in the Sixties and look at it with a more complex, nuanced eye, and that they look at Stepin Fetchit, the Nation of Islam, and all of these things. Not in terms of good or bad but it terms of complexities, nuances and they can have more interesting, provocative conversations. Like who was Muhammad Ali? He was complex; he wasn’t always perfect.

For younger people, I hope they look back at this time with a more true, more complex understanding of history. To not only understand the past but also to apply that to today. We have to look at people and understand our world not just as either /or, not just Democrat or Republican but in more complex ways that can speak to the whole situation. That’s the hope – a provocative evening of theater that sparks conversation. Because you know in a lot of communities these icons were considered polar opposites and the truth is they were friends at a really crazy time.

This is a play that looks at the politics of identity and reconciling public and private personas. What did you learn about yourself in writing Fetch Clay, Make Man?

No one’s asked me that. That’s a really great question. I have some stories I could tell you about some famous people I’ve met. . . . Everybody has a public persona. I feel like the public persona that they put out there – including me – is the truth, but it’s not their whole being. As my wife can tell you, I have other sides of me that don’t necessarily go with my public persona or my public personas. But their still my whole part, and in some ways, that’s the more interesting part. It’s one thing to talk to me and I’m Will Power – it’s funny we’re having this conversation, I’ve never talked about this before. That’s who I am, but there are other parts of me that make up the whole person. You know what I mean? Like the time that I’m not being interviewed, or not having a show, or not writing and the part that I’m at home making tofu or the part that I’m upset or the part that I’m worried about something.

Eddie Ray Jackson (Muhammad Ali) and Roscoe Orman (Stepin Fetchit). Photo by Kevin Berne.

Eddie Ray Jackson (Muhammad Ali) and Roscoe Orman (Stepin Fetchit). Photo by Kevin Berne.

The public persona is not that it’s not the truth – like Ali that’s who he was – but there are other parts. That’s what I would say.

Fetch Clay, Make Man plays through November 2, 2014 at Round House Theatre – 4545 East-West Highway, in Bethesda, MD. For tickets call the box office at (240) 644-1100, or purchase them online.

LINKS:

Fetch Clay, Make Man at Round House Theatre by Sydney-Chanele Dawkins on D.C. Metro Theater Arts.

Will Power’a website

The Playwright’s Playground is a monthly in-depth conversation with local female playwrights and artists in the D.C. theatre community. Female theatre artists make up more than 50 percent of those involved in the theatre, yet the number of female playwrights being produced is dramatically lower. In this continuing Column, I will also interview and introduce DCMTA readers to the many talented playwrights and artistic teams in the DMV area to learn about their writing process, their inspirations, and their motivations and struggles to write and produce their art.

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