Fetch Clay, Make Man has been up and running now for two weeks, and I’m just now starting to reflect-although the full vibe of what’s happened and what’s to come for the piece won’t be known until after we close. Still, been reflecting a bit. You know, this one has been a truly blessed experience for me-to work with a director so gifted as Des McAnuff, not to mention all the legendary designers AND my man Justin was right there doing the music like always-what more can a playwright ask for? How about a stellar cast, 5 actors receiving standing ovations every night and in the lead role-the one and only Ben Vereen.
When I was writing this piece, very early in its development, I knew I wanted Mr. Vereen to play the complex and controversial role of Stepin Fetchit (whose real name was Lincoln Perry). I didn’t know if it would ever be possible, but you can only try right? We asked Ben to come on board for a workshop, which he did and then let us know that he loved the role and wanted to be a part of the production. However, six weeks (only six weeks!) before we were to start rehearsals he called me to say he was pulling out. The reason? He was concerned, understandably so, that people wouldn’t understand what he was trying to do, and caste him off as some kind of Uncle Tom. This had happened to Ben before, as it happened to Lincoln Perry and other Black actors who were working with what they had within a specific era, and then judged (understandably or not) outside of the historical context in which they lived. I had to really talk to Ben, and tell him that the role was all about going deeper, not letting anyone of the hook, but really exploring the complexities of race, image, and the ever-elusive American Dream. He agreed but insisted that people still wouldn’t understand. I told him that I honestly felt that times had changed, and that folks were ready to look back on these older eras with more balanced eyes. And I told him that I didn’t know anyone who understood the role and could bring it to life the way he could (not to mention that he actually knew Stepin Fetchit, for more on that see the article). Finally, after a very stressful week in which we were on the verge of losing our lead, Mr. Vereen decided to play the part.
And oh how he plays it! And oh how amazing the cast is that plays the play with him! And oh how much love they are getting from critics and audiences alike! It is a true joy for me as a young African-American man to have been a part of creating a piece of theatre that allows one of my elders, and one of the great icons of the American stage to shine so bright. Thank you God for it all