BY BERT OSBORNE
For the AJC
Fetch actor, make director.
When scheduling conflicts prompted Jasmine Guy to withdraw from directing the True Colors Theatre drama “Fetch Clay, Make Man,” Tony-winning artistic director Kenny Leon was forced back to the drawing board to find a replacement. Unable to take over the production himself — he’s currently in New York rehearsing a live-TV version of “The Wiz” (airing Dec. 3) — Leon made a somewhat surprising choice: Eric Little.
“This provided a unique chance for us to do something fresh, by finding a young local director to embrace the challenge, and then giving him the freedom to paint his own picture, mentoring and helping him deliver his first major show,” Leon explains in a recent phone chat.
Since relocating to Atlanta 10 years ago, Little has become one of the most talented actors in town, giving celebrated performances in such shows as True Colors’ “Miss Evers’ Boys” (directed by Leon and starring Guy), Horizon’s “Superior Donuts,” Theatre in the Square’s “Blue Door,” Aurora’s “Clybourne Park,” and Theatrical Outfit’s “Fly” and “A Lesson Before Dying.”
In his proverbial “day job” as an assistant professor in the theater department of Clark Atlanta University, Little has directed a few plays before. But his only previous professional directing experience was staging last year’s one-act “Chainz” for the fledgling Rising Sage Theatre.
“Kenny could’ve called any established director in Atlanta or in the nation to step in,” notes Little, 36, during a recent dinner interview. “(It’s) something I don’t take lightly, and I’m very humbled, honored and appreciative of the opportunity.”
Set in the mid-1960s and based on actual events, Will Power’s “Fetch Clay, Make Man” depicts the unlikely bond that develops between the up-and-coming boxer Cassius Clay (newly renamed Muhammad Ali) and the down-and-out movie actor Stepin Fetchit (who built his reputation playing offensive black stereotypes in the 1930s and ’40s). The True Colors production co-stars Rob Demery and Brad Raymond, respectively.
“One thing the play conveys is that the two of them have more in common than you’d probably think,” Little observes. “It gives you a different view of them, with all of their strengths and weaknesses, as real men, not just as positive or negative icons. It’s about a lot of things, about friendship and redemption, about the duality of self and about reinventing oneself.”
Little can certainly relate to that sort of reinvention. Compared to acting, he says, “Directing puts a heavier weight on you. It’s a bigger responsibility, making decisions about telling the overall story, instead of just focusing on playing one character.”
He admits the rehearsals have been a “learning process” for him — in addition to confirming what he already knew about the collaborative nature of theater. “A director may have the last word, but that doesn’t mean you need to have all the answers,” Little points out.
“Different people approach the work differently, but we’re all there to serve the same script, so (directing) is about having patience and respecting those differences, establishing a mutual trust between everyone that helps get a single vision across. When you’re working with such great actors and designers, sometimes they’ll think of things that you never would have.”
After a pause, Little smiles and adds, “That’s the most beautiful part of it all.”
“Fetch Clay, Make Man”
Through Nov. 22. Previews, 8 p.m. Oct. 27-29. Opening night, 8 p.m. Oct. 30. Then, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. $20-$50. Southwest Arts Center, 915 New Hope Road, Atlanta. 1-877-725-8849, www.truecolorstheatre.org.