Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Stepin Fetchit Has His Say at Luna Stage
Fetchit was born Lincoln Theodore Perry in 1902 in Key West, Florida to a West Indian family. In his early teens, having caught his Tampa cigar-roller father's wanderlust, Perry ran away from home and managed to survive performing menial work for traveling tent shows. Displaying an innate talent as a performer-dancer, Perry segued into performing, first at circuses and the like and eventually with a partner in vaudeville. Here Perry posits that the two became billed as Step n' Fetchit after a dance routine which they had developed in which a hat was placed on the ground, and they retrieved it at the end of a graceful dance step. When his partner left the act for other pursuits, Perry continued the act adapting the twosome's name for himself in the slightly altered form of Stepin Fetchit.
In an extended set piece that is one of the play's highlights, Orman as Fetchit re-enacts the story of how he developed his screen persona as (please say these words very slowly in order to get their full effect) "the world's most laziest man in the United States." It is a solid and funny story according to which more than 1,000 wannabe screen actors on an outdoor set did whatever they could to bring attention to themselves while Fetchit lay on a wagon pretending to sleep until the director approached him. Fetchit goes on to describe the extremely clever manner in which he hilariously convinces his director that his lazy and ignorant persona is real, and uses it to expand his role and controvert the script to his advantage. Even some determined to find nothing funny in Fetchit's persona may find themselves guiltily chuckling.
Although I have only seen snippets of his work, as it has been suppressed for many decades, it is apparent that Fetchit was a slapstick comedian of enormous skill. He appeared in more than 50 films, was beloved of large audiences of both blacks and whites, and, according to Robert Benchley way back when, was "the best actor that talking pictures have produced, one of the great comedians of the screen."
Although physically broader, Roscoe Orman brings Fetchit to vivid life. Marvelously smooth and light on his feet, Orman produces the graceful choreographed movement that was the trademark of the great early comedians of the silver screen. Orman also convincingly reveals the highly sophisticated man who was a writer for the famed black newspaper the Chicago Defender and wrote music and lyrics for one of his films (I do not believe that these facts are included here). Orman shows us the pain and anger which Fetchit feels, for the most part, keeping it bubbling below the surface as his Fetchit retains his stylishly ingratiating manner, trying to win us over. Some may react negatively to such a manner, but any other would not be appropriate to Fetchit, and every movement of Orman's is appropriate and so much more. The work of director Bill Lathan is appropriately inobtrusive. He certainly must receive a share of the credit for Orman's letter perfect performance.
Fetchit does not grant us the pathos of Fetchit's downward spiral during the decades after the end of the World War II (although it is not something that a man with the dignity with which Fetchit is portrayed would want to discuss with us).
This writer has always been disturbed at the hubris of those who apply the standards of modern day society onto people whose actions occurred in another era. Some of the most enlightened and racially well-motivated public figures of the past have been excoriated for statements and actions which would today be unacceptable without regard to their social context. In this instance, I am inclined to accept author Robinson's thesis (as stated by Fetchit) that the ignorant, lazy negro was a persona adapted by slaves under a system in which there were no rewards for solid effort to convince their masters that it was useless to expect better work from them, and that, in performing such roles in their entertainments, slaves were laughing at the credulousness of their slave owners.
However, as Robinson presents only one side of the argument, despite my disinclination, I found myself conjuring up arguments for the prosecution. As some black soldiers turn on Fetchit and his persona when he performs for them during World War II, I could not help but feel that at least by then Fetchit should have known that it was time to bury his screen persona. However, Robinson's Fetchit never changes nor gives the slightest consideration to the possibility that there may be some validity to the case against him. This robs the play of the conflict and catharsis which could make it more than the mildly interesting presentation that it is.
When playwright Matt Robinson was a producer-writer for the planned PBS "Sesame Street," his strength of personality and presence led to his being recruited to originate the pivotal role of Gordon on that landmark series. It is moving to see Roscoe Orman, a long running, worthy successor to Robinson in that role, pay high honor to Robinson with his outstanding performance at Luna Stage.
The Confessions of Stepin Fetchit continues performances at Luna Stage (Thurs. 7:30p.m./ Fri & Sat. 8p.m./ Sun. 2p.m.) through March 12, 2006 at Luna Stage, 695 Bloomfield Avenue, Montclair, NJ 07042; Box Office: 973-744-3309; online: www.lunastage.org.
The Confessions of Stepin Fetchit by Matt Robinson; directed by