From the Playwright
“History is not static,” my grandfather would say, “it’s a moving, slippery elusive thing, that constantly morphs and changes depending on who you are, and where you at.”
A few years ago I was in a bookstore, when I came across the most bizarre photo I think I’ve ever seen in my life. In the center of the picture was the famous boxer and braggadocios poet Muhammad Ali. To the left of him was the infamous shuffling Uncle Tom picture star known to the world as Stepin Fetchit. Wait, Stepin Fetchit and Muhammad Ali? What the heck were they doing in a picture together? Upon further examination, the caption underneath the photograph said “Muhammad Ali with his friend and secret strategist Stepin Fetchit.” Secret what?
Raised in an Afrocentric community in San Francisco in the 1970s, we were taught our history in broad strokes of black and white. Basically black was good (except for those times when black folks fell under the spell of The Man), and white was bad (except for those few good white folks). We were told that Stepin Fetchit was not only a disgrace, but a traitor to his people for popularizing such vile, stereotypical images. And Muhammad Ali, for every kid in the ghetto I think, was the living personification of God. Seeing this photo, however, sent me on a quest to understand the truth of not only who these two men really were, but of those earth-shattering times we call the 1960s. What I discovered was that the era, like today, was not painted in black and white, but in much more complex colors that aren’t easily defined. Stepin Fetchit and Muhammad Ali, two 20th-century icons whose personifications will live on and influence pop culture long after they both pass on, were both much more complicated then they appeared. By looking at the struggle that these two men went though in the attempt to control, manipulate and own their own image in the pursuit of their own American dream, we can learn so much about the complexities of that age, as well as our own.
In this post-post Civil Rights, Obama era, where race and sex and image and power mix together in unprecedented ways, the time is now to look back on these older eras with a more critical eye, exploring the good, the bad, and the infinite multitude of shades in between. As a playwright, I’m not interested in re-writing history. What fascinates me more is the attempt to fill in the many missing or misunderstood pages of the history book. Every generation has the responsibility and right to learn and question the story that’s told to them. This is my attempt at doing just that.
– Will Power, McCarter Theatre, January 2010