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
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
Don Shewey is the
author of the biography ``Sam Shepard'' and a theater critic
for The Advocate.
April 29, 2001