Sharing the Stage With August Wilson

THE young crowd filling the room for MTV's in-house multicultural speaker series one recent lunchtime had clearly turned out to hear August Wilson, whose plays chronicling the experience of black Americans in the 20th century have won a bushel basket of awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes. But they also got an unexpected jolt of energy and eloquence from the tall stocky man with the graying goatee, black turtleneck and fedora who shared the platform with the writer. That would be Marion McClinton, the director of Mr. Wilson's new play, "King Hedley II," which opens tonight at the Virginia Theater. As the MTV employees, many of whom had seen "King Hedley II" in previews, fired questions at them, the playwright and the director took turns answering. Mr. Wilson beamed while Mr. McClinton held forth on subjects ranging from the interpretation of God by the "King Hedley" character Stool Pigeon to the mythological significance of a blood sacrifice to the production's use of songs by N.W.A. and Public Enemy, whom the director referred to as "warrior rappers."

"I've worked on Shakespeare, Beckett and Genet, and they were a walk in the park compared to this play," Mr. McClinton told the audience. "Sometimes it feels like Muhammad Ali fighting Joe Frazier he keeps coming at you!" The production of "King Hedley II" is a landmark for Mr. McClinton. It is at once his debut as a director on Broadway and the culmination of a 25-year theatrical career that has gotten increasingly hotter. Two years ago he directed "Jar the Floor," Cheryl West's comedy about four generations of black women, to good reviews and enthusiastic audiences at the Second Stage Theater Off Broadway. And last year his production of "Jitney,"

Mr. Wilson's dramatic comedy about a company of gypsy cabdrivers, wound up a four-year tour of regional theaters with a triumphant Off Broadway run that earned Obie Awards for the ensemble cast and for Mr. McClinton as director. As soon as "King Hedley II" opens, Mr. McClinton goes into production for Kia Corthron's "Breath, Boom" at Playwrights Horizons. And Disney has hired him to develop a musical called "Hoopz" about the Harlem Globetrotters, with a book by Suzan-Lori Parks, which will begin workshops next spring.

"King Hedley II" stars Brian Stokes Mitchell as the title character, who has recently served seven years in prison and is trying to get on his feet financially by selling stolen refrigerators. It is 1985, and the economic boom of Reaganomics has not trickled down to the Hill District of Pittsburgh, where Mr. Wilson's plays are set. More than his other plays, this one explicitly refers to previous episodes in the cycle. King's mother Ruby (portrayed by Leslie Uggams) and Stool Pigeon (also known as Canewell and played by Stephen McKinley Henderson) were characters in "Seven Guitars," which opened on Broadway in 1996. And the play includes the offstage death of the 366-year- old Aunt Esther, a mythological figure on whom Mr. Wilson's next play will be centered. Like all of Mr. Wilson's plays, "King Hedley II" has had a long gestation. It began in a workshop at the Seattle Repertory Theater two years ago, and Mr. McClinton has worked closely with the playwright on its several incarnations.

Aside from the fact that it crams into three hours as much material as "The Sopranos" does in a 13-week season, what made "King Hedley II" such a challenge for the director? "It operates on so many levels at the same time," Mr. McClinton said. "It operates in the language of August Wilson, the blues idiom, the gospel idiom, the idiom of the black church, it operates out of classic Western theater the Greeks, in particular `Oedipus.' And it operates in the land of Yoruba myth and religion, which is the hardest one to actualize but the one that gave the play its bed to ground it. In particular, we looked at the story of Ogun, the god of iron. The image of the barbed wire that King puts around the garden could be a crown of thorns or a circle of iron. It's a complicated play, with an enormous number of allusions, out of which he creates a new legend, a new fable, a new mythological figure, a Messiah of the 20th century."

Mr. Wilson seems both amused and awed by Mr. McClinton's dedication. "Marion will go home after rehearsal and read the script every night," he said, smoking a cigarette after the MTV forum. "I honestly don't know anyone more passionate than he is about the theater." Although he had already begun directing plays, Mr. McClinton was primarily an actor when he and Mr. Wilson met at a poetry reading in 1978 in St. Paul, Minn., where they both were living. "I had wanted to be an actor since I was 6," he said. "In one weekend I saw `On the Waterfront,' `A Streetcar Named Desire' and `The Wild One' on TV. After having grown up watching movies with John Wayne, who was John Wayne in every movie, this Brando guy was something else. What he did was exciting, it was real. Around the same time, Sidney Poitier won an Oscar for `Lilies of the Field,' and I thought, `This is something I could do.' "

The first live play that made an impression on him was a production of "The Great White Hope" starring Ernie Hudson as the boxing champion Jack Johnson. "That floored me with the power of theater," Mr. McClinton said. "I understood Jack Johnson's anger, his pride, his arrogance. So I was pulled into theater by something that gave a voice to stuff I was feeling inside." At 21, he quit the University of Minnesota and joined the newly formed Penumbra Theater, a black theater company whose ensemble members were young and high-spirited. "Very much like Steppenwolf, except that where they were rock- and-roll, we were the bebop theater," Mr. McClinton said. "Our style of acting was based on rhythm." He played the narrator in Mr. Wilson's first professional production, a musical satire called "Black Bart and the Sacred Hills," and he took the role of the alcoholic Fielding in the very first incarnation of "Jitney" at Penumbra in 1985.

Mr. McClinton began writing his own plays in 1989. The first, "Walkers," got slammed when it was produced at the Hudson Guild Theater Off Broadway. "Police Boys" had a better reception when it opened at Playwrights Horizons in 1995 after productions in Baltimore and Pittsburgh. He considers writing his loneliest occupation and acting his most satisfying, but directing is what allowed him to earn a living and have a stable home life with his wife and son.

An associate artist at Center Stage in Baltimore, he has directed at theaters all over the country and made his New York directorial debut at the Public Theater in 1994 with Eugene Lee's "East Texas Hot Links." He has spent three of the last four summers at the Sundance Theater Lab in Utah. "Marion has been a favorite mentor for writers and directors because he understands the process from the inside," said Robert Blacker, the artistic director of the lab.

Mr. McClinton believes he has done his best work as a director at Penumbra, with actors he has known for 15 years or more. Specifically, his 1993 staging of "The Piano Lesson," the first August Wilson play he directed, altered his relationship with the writer forever.

"I'd taken some liberties with the play, and I was petrified that he would hate it," Mr. McClinton said. "I remember the day August saw it. I wasn't there. It was the day of my first interview with George Wolfe, who was fresh into his job at the Public. Another daunting figure! That night I saw a play by Athol Fugard, who'd been a major part of my acting career, and I got to meet him afterward. I went back to my hotel and called home and asked, `What'd he think?' They said, `He loved it, he was on his feet clapping at the end, came up onstage with the actors, took us out, told us it was the best production he'd ever seen.' "

He paused, remembering the emotions of that day. "I was staying at the Empire Hotel, and when I hung up the phone I opened the drapes and looked out the window at New York, and thought: `Well, you kicked my butt the first time I was here, and there will be some butt-kickings to come, and embracings to come, but maybe I should stick around.' It was a very moving day. I thought as an artist I had arrived. I thought as an artist I belonged, and I had something of value to give, to share."

Mr. Wilson remembers that production of "The Piano Lesson" vividly. "It blew me away," he said. "I saw a director who was willing to try very bold things. Most directors don't trust themselves. Instead of coming up with a concept for the play, they would just duplicate Lloyd's production." The collaboration between August Wilson and Lloyd Richards, which began in 1983, is one of the most fruitful in American theater. As a director with a Broadway track record (he staged the original 1959 production of Lorraine Hansberry's "Raisin in the Sun") and the dean at the time of the Yale Drama School, Mr. Richards was the most powerful African-American in the theater. When he selected Mr. Wilson's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" for development at the O'Neill playwrights conference in Connecticut, directed it at the Yale Repertory Theater and brought it to Broadway, he singlehandedly put the playwright on the map.

Mr. Richards went on to stage the first productions of Mr. Wilson's subsequent plays: "Fences" (which won a Pulitzer), "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," "The Piano Lesson" (another Pulitzer), "Two Trains Running" and "Seven Guitars." Along the way, he and the managing director of the Yale Rep at the time, Benjamin Mordecai, established a system of developing important, literary but commercially risky plays like Mr. Wilson's by refining them at a series of nonprofit regional theaters before mounting them in the high-stakes arena of Broadway.

By 1996, when "Seven Guitars" opened on Broadway, Mr. Richards was 74 and had retired from Yale. When Mr. Wilson decided to return to "Jitney," a script he had been rewriting on and off since 1979, he tapped Mr. McClinton, who is 46, to stage the show. Mr. Wilson described the difference between the two directors as generational. "The period of time Lloyd came into directing defined him as a director, and the same goes with Marion," he said.

While Mr. Richards's productions reflected a solid grounding in classic naturalistic drama of the postwar era, Mr. McClinton is willing to be more theatrical with his use of music and set design. For instance, his decision to give his production of "Jitney" a soundtrack of songs by Marvin Gaye at his prime nimbly conveyed the cultural and emotional climate of the mid-1970's for urban black men. And David Gallo's stylized set for "King Hedley II" embeds symbolic references to past Wilson plays in what looks like a realistic Pittsburgh backyard. "My productions were more muscular, more musical than Lloyd's," Mr. McClinton said. "I stretched more toward the poetry. But working with August, I started to realize a lot of things that Lloyd brought that you couldn't see onstage but in the rehearsal room were essential. Such as fidelity to the text. Maybe some of the choices I made in some of those productions were exciting I'm thinking of `Two Trains Running' in Baltimore, which the audience loved. But the ending he'd written was darker, more revolutionary, and I basically sabotaged it. Working with August directly, I realized that sometimes your improvements aren't improvements, they're a contradiction of what he's saying. So what I've learned is: follow the text."

He has also been learning some things about the economics of Broadway. While a team of producers devoted to Mr. Wilson's work, headed by Mr. Mordecai, has been able to raise the financing to put "King Hedley II" on Broadway with a theater star, Mr. Mitchell, they were unable to do so for "Jitney," which played an extended run at the Second Stage and then moved to the Union Square Theater Off Broadway.

And despite its good notices and enthusiastic audiences, "Jar the Floor" was not able to manage a commercial transfer at all, which continues to irk Mr. McClinton. " `Jar the Floor' should have played Broadway," he said flatly. "It had the perfect demographic audience, and a major performance by Lynne Thigpen, who I believe got cheated out of a Tony last year. There's a sector that believes that black plays don't work on Broadway unless there's singing and dancing. Sometimes I believe that's a self-fulfilling prophecy. For anything to work on that street it has to be supported with financing, advertising, publicity. I'm not sure exactly how it all broke down between the money people and the theater owners. All I know is that the theater we were looking at was the Longacre, and that `Taller Than a Dwarf' went in there" a short- lived play from last season. "I do believe `Jar the Floor' would have done better."

Robyn Goodman, who was one of the producers trying to move "Jar the Floor," said that, "Getting a Broadway house is a political thing. It's a matter of who carries the most weight with the theater owners." According to Elizabeth I. McCann, who would have been the lead producer for the Broadway transfer, the Shubert Organization had promised a theater to Julian Schlossberg, a producer of "Taller Than a Dwarf." Ms. McCann said, "It came down to who the Shuberts thought had a better chance of running through the summer, and they picked Elaine May and Matthew Broderick over Cheryl West and Lynne Thigpen."

At the MTV forum, Mr. McClinton echoed Mr. Wilson's famously argued conviction that for black theater to survive and thrive it can't depend on the white theater establishment. He brought up the recent closing of the Crossroads Theater, the well-respected nonprofit black theater company in New Jersey, and said, "Michael Jordan could make sure the Crossroads Theater didn't go down with the money he'd bet on a golf game." Furthermore, "Michael Jordan or Oprah Winfrey could have gotten `Jar the Floor' on Broadway. I believe the money's out there. Why doesn't it happen? It goes back 150 years.

Some people are still trying to buy their freedom. The question is, how much do we value our art?"

Don Shewey is the author of the biography ``Sam Shepard'' and a theater critic for The Advocate.

April 29, 2001     Copyright 2001

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