Theatre is that glorious empty space that challenges imagination, artistry, and discovery like no other place I know. Done well, it entertains, provokes thought, and can be an instrument of change. For weeks I have been the leader in the exploration of Will Power’s Fetch Clay, Make Man, a work, true to the reputation of the author, that tells a story of real relationships that thrusts race, power, and identity in the foreground of its characters and its audience. The language of the play sings in rhythms like songs. The shifts in perspective happen instantaneously, and the revelation of truths unravels learned perception.
My mother Vivian Ayers, a poet and true renaissance woman, gave Muhammad Ali his first poetry reading in Houston Texas in 1967. I remember seeing him up close, glistening and roaring before the crowd. As a young child, I watched every musical comedy film Hollywood made from Top Hat, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Charley Chan in Egypt to Green Pastures, where God was portrayed as a Black man.
Stepin Fetchit was always considered a character that demeaned our Black community with his “laziest man on earth” portrayals. I could never have imagined the bond between them. But the discovery, through Fetch Clay, Make Man, of their parallel struggles as men changed my perception. It also led me to take a deep dive into the creation of Hollywood and the Jewish men who fought to create an American Dream they could participate in. The play speaks of times gone by, but still very present. I feel so fortunate to have been asked to go on this journey with Will, our incredible cast, and a very gifted and collaborative creative team painting a fresh landscape where it all happens. This production will surely open inquiry, spark dialogue, and change perceptions.
Get To Know: Muhammad Ali & Stepin Fechit
Many may know the name Muhammad Ali, but only some know the story of Ali and Stepin Fetchit. As we prepare to step into the ring, keep reading to learn all about these two stars before their unlikely friendship.
Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay, changed his name as a symbol against white supremacy. Ali was born January 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky, amid racial segregation in the United States. Racial tensions in America ran rampant, and Ali was strongly affected by the murder of Emmet Till, which shaped much of his political activism later in life.
The legendary boxer first gained an interest in the sport after a run-in with boxing coach Joe. E. Martin. The story goes that Martin encountered a 12-year-old Ali fuming after a thief had stolen his book, proclaiming he was going to “whup” the thief. Martin offered Ali how to box, but later worked with trainer Fred Stoner, whom Ali credits with molding his style. Ali made his amateur boxing debut in 1954 and went on to win six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles, two national titles, and the gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics.
Ali made his professional debut in October of 1960, where he began a legacy of achievements. Through 1963, he earned a record of 19-0 and defeated many recognized boxers, including his former trainer, Archie Moore. Ali was well known for trash talking in matches, a style he was inspired by professional wrestler “Gorgeous George” Wagner.
In 1967, Ali had his boxing license suspended after refusing to step forward during his scheduled induction into the U.S. Armed Forces. The United States was at war with Vietnam, but Ali was vocal on resisting the Draft, publicly considering himself a conscientious objector. He cited his religious beliefs and opposition to American involvement as the principal factors for his refusal of service, as well as in protest of the unfair treatment of Black people in the United States. He was found guilty of draft evasion, but his conviction was overturned in 1971 by the Supreme Court.
Ali returned to boxing in 1970 through the help of Leroy Johnson and Jesse Hill Jr., who used their political influence to organize a fight and license for Ali while his case was still in appeal. A month later, the New York State Boxing Commission reinstated Ali’s license, and he found Oscar Bonavena at Madison Square Garden. He continued his legacy of boxing, competing against various professional boxers along the way, and retired in 1981.
Ali passed in 2017 but carried with him a legacy in boxing and political activism. His influence throughout the country has been undeniable, being a role model for many in the sport, and for those who fought for racial equality in the United States.
Born in 1902, Stepin Fetchit (born Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry) was a comedian and actor of Jamaican and Bahamian descent and is often recognized as the first black actor to hold a successful film career. Not much is known about his early childhood, but by the age of 12, he had run away and joined a carnival, where he earned a living by singing and tap dancing.
Fetchit was most known for his work as a vaudeville artist and had become the manager of a traveling carnival show. Vaudeville was a form of entertainment in the early 20th century and featured exaggerated comedy alongside song and dance. He adopted the name “Stepin Fetchit” after becoming a solo act, as he and his former partner were known as “Step” and “Fetch It” in their acts.
By the mid-1920s, Fetchit had begun to work in film, signing a five-year studio contract following his performance in the film In Old Kentucky. He was soon known for playing comic-relief forms, which were all based on his character known as “the Laziest Man in the World” and appeared in various films over the following ten years. In the 1930s, Fetchit became the first black actor to become a millionaire and receive a featured screen credit. Over the course of 12 years, he appeared in 44 films.
While Fetchit was able to find success in the entertainment industry, he stopped appearing in films in the 1940s, as he was frustrated by the unequal pay and billing he received as opposed to his white costars. At the same time, Black Americans began to express concerns that the roles Fetchit played echoed negative stereotypes of the community. They considered his work to be harmful and affected his career which nearly stopped altogether by 1953. He received criticism from various civil rights leaders and was even the subject of a CBS documentary entitled Black History: Lost, Stolen, or Strayed, which criticized the depiction of Black people in American films and criticized Fetchit's portrayals.
In 1976, the Hollywood chapter of the NAACP awarded him the NAACP Image Award, and he was later inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. Fetchit suffered a stroke in his final years and passed away in November 1985. Though Fetchit’s career became a subject of controversy, he still received recognition for his contributions and strides in the industry.
He became the friend of heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali in the 1960s, which you can further explore at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, which will enlighten audiences with the history and friendship these two held in Fetch Clay, Make Man.