During the turbulent years of the Civil Rights Era, two men forged an unlikely friendship. Former movie star Lincoln Perry was better known in his heyday as the comical, stereotypical caricature of a black man, Stepin Fetchit. By the mid-1960s, Perry was hardly remembered and if he was, it was with derision or as the butt of jokes. During this time, a maverick of a young boxer, introduced to the world as Cassius Clay, was remaking himself as Muhammad Ali.
This is the world Will Power evokes with Fetch Clay, Make Man making its area debut at Round House Theatre in co-production with Marin Theatre Company. Roscoe Orman, a veteran of the stage and screen including 40 years on “Sesame Street” plays Perry. Portraying the man who would become known as “The Greatest,” is Eddie Ray Jackson. Both men traveled with the play from the Marin production and co-star at Round House. Jeffrey Walker sat down with Orman and Jackson to talk about their characters, the unique friendship between Clay and Perry, and the production.
Jeffrey Walker: How is life after “Sesame Street”?
Roscoe Orman: “Sesame Street” is still ongoing. I’ve done 40 years and I’m still connected with the show but it’s much less of a time commitment now.
JW: Eddie, what did you think about the idea of working with Roscoe from your childhood?
Eddie Ray Jackson: On the first day of rehearsal, I walked up to him and told him I wouldn’t keep bothering him for autographs (laughing)!
JW: Roscoe, what was your first knowledge of Lincoln Perry or his persona Stepin Fetchit?
Orman: By the time I came along in the mid-forties, I did not know much about him. When I watched television as a child, all the scenes in films Stepin Fetchit was in were deleted when they were shown.
I should tell you that my first encounter with the character of Stepin Fetchit was back in the early 90s when my predecessor on “Sesame Street,” the late Matt Robinson, who was a wonderful writer, producer, and actor wrote a script, a one-man play based on the life of Lincoln Perry. Robinson had gotten to know Perry and heard his stories and became friends with him. Matt presented me this vehicle and I first performed it in New York in 1993 and I’ve performed it off and on for about 12 years. I had a unique opportunity to get to know and understand the man of Lincoln Perry. So in some respects, it’s a return to this character and the conflict that really characterized his life.
JW: And what about Muhammad Ali, Eddie. How did you come to play this character?
Jackson: My friend Ray Fisher performed this play as Muhammed Ali last year, so that’s how I knew about it. And I kept saying I would never play that part when he got it. The next thing I knew they were having auditions at the Marin Theater Company and I decided to see if I could get it and I did!
JW: What did you do to prepare?
Jackson: I lost 25 pounds to play this role to make sure I was in boxing shape. Luckily for me I had two years of boxing experience under my belt so that helped. The theatre company set me up with a training facility where I could go inside and do some more boxing training with a trainer named Ed Green who was extraordinary. That helped me with the footwork of Ali and the flow of him. While I was there, I really had a chance to practice being Ali. Every time I would come in, they would say, “Hey, champ what you going to do to Joe Frazier?” I’d say, “You already know what I’m going to do, I’m going to kill him!” Plus I would spend I don’t know how many countless hours just watching YouTube videos and listening to recordings and reading a bunch of books that talked about how he was behind the cameras which is what I was more focused on.
JW: What brings Clay and Perry together?
Jackson: Muhammad Ali wants to learn something from Stepin Fetchit. Ali was looking to find out how to maneuver himself. Perry was so successful but yet the character of Stepin Fetchit was always depicted as a clown, a character, shuffling – for lack of a better word, a coon. To me, Muhammad Ali was saying at this time this is how everyone is seeing me, this character they see me as is this boastful clown, “the Louisville Lip,” and still as Cassius Clay. Ali also asks Perry about the anchor punch which is something that the great champion Jack Johnson supposedly taught Stepin Fetchit. After that – I tell people to come and see the show to learn more about that.
JW: We know that Ali is trying to emerge as a man to be reckoned with at this time. Where is Perry at this point?
Orman: By the time this play takes place, in the mid-60s, Lincoln Perry’s career was pretty much over. A few appearances on television and movies notwithstanding, he was pretty much a forgotten figure.
The Stepin Fetchit role was one he manipulated within the industry because he knew it would propel his career. Back at the time in Hollywood there were no serious dramatic roles for black actors. He raised the level of that sly, comic, dim witted but compelling character to unprecedented success in Hollywood. He was the first African American millionaire in Hollywood, living in mansions with limousines and servants, the life of a first rate movie star. This was to the delight of many in the in the African American community. And at the same time, there were many others who thought that the character he was portraying was damaging the public image of African Americans and one that needed to be reversed . And eventually that led to his demise in Hollywood since there were no other opportunities for him to play other kinds of roles.
Eventually there was a change in the presentation of black characters and someone like Sidney Poitier came along. Ironically he was a great admirer of Lincoln Perry, and has said publicly that without a Lincoln Perry there never could have been a Sidney Poitier.
Jackson: Each night in the play Stepin Fetchit says “I sneaked in the back door so you could walk through the front door.” And he was saying that to Muhammad Ali. Remember at this time, Ali is only 23 years old and he has all these things against him, all these groups working against him, even blacks. And he’s trying to win this championship again because people didn’t believe he won it the first time and is trying to figure out how he can be Muhammad Ali, and put Cassius Clay behind him. This all takes place just a few months after winning the belt and being proclaimed as Ali by Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam.
JW: Hard to believe they became friends.
Orman: They both represented polar opposites in the popular culture.
These two men were navigating through those times and at the very different stages in their careers. Ali was a very young man in his early twenties and had not yet become the figure everyone knew and respected later as the greatest. Perry admired Ali’s self-confidence and natural charisma – this dynamic, young heavyweight champion. But, of course, Ali was not revered at first; he was not highly thought of by most Americans, including African Americans. He was kind of a loud mouth, a braggadocio. It wasn’t until years later, when he took a stand against the status quo and the Vietnam War, that he gained greater respect from many people, including myself. He became one of my personal heroes. And Perry, throughout his career, the NAACP was against him. But later in life, they granted him a lifetime achievement award. Perry’s life and career is filled with many conflicts and contradictions but he never lost his sense of himself or his self-worth.
JW: Other than these two men, what is Fetch Clay, Make Man really about?
FETCH CLAY, MAKE MAN
Closes November 2, 2014
Round House Theatre,
4545 East-West Highway,
Tickets: $35 – $50
Tuesdays thru Sundays
JW: We learn even more about someone we think we know pretty well, Ali, and find out about another important figure.
Jackson: I think that’s one thing Will Power has captured so well in this play. We all know who Muhammad Ali is but most people do not know about Lincoln Perry or Stepin Fetchit . Getting that information out about who this man was is very vital.