‘When I was first asked to play the character of Steppin Fetchit, my initial reaction was shock,” says actor Roscoe Orman, describing the moment, in 1993, when he was given a one-man play titled
The Life and Times of Steppin Fetchit. “I was a little bit offended,” Orman admits.
“I didn’t really know that much about Lincoln Perry,” Orman continues, “the real man behind the character of Steppin Fetchit. I knew that he was a controversial figure, an actor who had been seriously criticized for creating a negative portrayal of black people. But that was about all.”
The playwright who asked Orman to play the part was Matt Robinson, who originally created the piece for himself. A longtime writer and producer for television, Robinson was the first actor to play the beloved character of Gordon on the PBS children’s show Sesame Street. The second actor to play Gordon was Roscoe Orman, who went on to play Gordon for 40 years.
As it turns out, Orman was impressed with Robinson’s play. After a successful run in New York City, he went on to tour it internationally, off and on, for the next 12 years.
This week, he steps into the character again. This time, though, it’s in a powerful new play by writer Will Power. Titled Fetch Clay, Make Man, the play—kicking off the Marin Theatre Company’s new season—explores the real-life friendship between Perry and boxing legend Muhammed Ali.
“It was an interesting, intriguing, extremely dramatic relationship,” says Orman, who saw the play in New York last year and immediately knew he wanted to appear in it the next time it was produced. “Having played the man himself for such a long period,” he says, “I think you could say I’m bringing a certain expertise to my portrayal of the character. So here I am, appearing as Steppin Fetchit for the season opener of the Marin Theatre Company.”
Asked to illuminate any differences in character that might exist between the two very different plays, Orman says it’s not easy to compare them.
“Perry was a controversial figure, but he was a very important figure: the first black actor in Hollywood films to have an extended and successful career,” Orman says. “Both playwrights have discovered the man behind the myth—and let me tell you, he was quite an amazing man.”
‘Fetch Clay, Make Man’ runs Tuesday–Sunday, Aug. 14–Sept. 7 at the Marin Theatre Company. 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Times vary. $20–$58. 415.388.5208.