10 Years, 10 Plays Pittsburgh Playwrights to Complete Cycle of August Wilson Plays

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Ten years and 10 August Wilson plays have come and are nearly gone, and Mark Clayton Southers is back on the stage. In the past decade, the founder and all-purpose leader of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre has designed all the sets while his company completed Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle of plays, one each year. In that decade, he has quit his steel mill job, he has been theater coordinator at the August Wilson Center, he has directed at other regional theaters and helmed "The Jonny Gammage Project" here at home. But now he's learning lines again as Harmond Wilks in "Radio Golf," which will give his company the boast of being the first to perform all 10 plays in a 10-year span.

It's a daunting role, Harmond, and it was supposed to go to Carnegie Mellon alum Ben Cain, who left for the opportunity to join the Mark Taper Forum production of Wilson's "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," directed by Phylicia Rashad.

"Can't blame him for that. I was really excited for him," Mr. Southers said.

Acting is just one more hat to wear for a man who has worn many while keeping his company alive from the ashes of Penn Theater in Garfield to a garage space on Penn Avenue, Downtown, to its current Liberty Avenue home, above the Bricolage storefront theater and across the street from the August Wilson Center for African American Culture. For much of that time, 1992 through 2010, he worked at U.S. Steel's Irvin Works to pay the bills -- for his family and his theater.

Looking ahead

Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company was founded in 2003 when Michael Moats was closing up shop at Penn Theater and Mr. Southers, an emerging playwright who had acted at Penn and at Kuntu Repertory Theater, asked to take it from there. He wanted to produce his own works locally, along with those of August Wilson and fellow disciples such as Javon Johnson. His first order of business was to program "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," the first play of the cycle.

With "Radio Golf" opening Saturday, that labor of love and sweat will be completed. Then it's full speed ahead to the next phase, which will include producing works by Pittsburgh native George S. Kaufman and bringing a new Roberto Clemente musical, "21," to Playwrights for a workshop production.

He hopes that the future will include a return to the August Wilson Center, which is just visible from Playwrights' third-floor windows at 937 Liberty Ave. He was furloughed a month ago from his job as theater coordinator in a cost-cutting move.

"I don't know what's going to happen; we could be back in there in the fall. It just can't be the same way it's been. I have to be a producer there, because I don't have a staff that understands producing. I can't just sit back and give ideas and then watch them not flourish," he said.

Among the possibilities is sharing Playwrights' productions with the center. Last year, he brought "Gem of the Ocean" across the street for four free shows, attended by 1,600 people.

"If you're getting funding for the community to do stuff, why not give them something they can cherish? I thought it was major. I'd like to do more things like that, that the center can benefit from as well -- not so much financially, but in terms of collecting data and making the community feel welcome there."

With the August Wilson Cycle done, the plan had been to switch production of the late playwright's work to the August Wilson Center and for Playwrights to begin a series of works by Kaufman, who thrived in the 1920s and '30s with works such as the Pulitzer Prize- winning farce "You Can't Take It With You." The plan is for Todd Olson of American Stage Theatre in St. Petersburg, Fla., to direct a Kaufman work, possibly "The Solid Gold Cadillac," but the timing depends on the director's availability.

"I started just a theater company, but we've been deemed a black company because I'm black, and that's just the reality of it. And our first season at Pittsburgh Playwrights [in 2003] was an all- black lineup of playwrights -- August Wilson, Rob Penny, Javon Johnson and myself. …