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.
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
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. …