BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
Mark Clayton Southers has deep August Wilson connections. Like the legendary playwright, Southers is from Pittsburgh's Hill District, where all but one of Wilson's plays are set. And Southers knew Wilson.
"I called him August, he called me Mark,'' says Southers, who is directing Ma Rainey's Black Bottom for American Stage. Set in the 1920s, it is the first play that Wilson had produced in his Century Cycle, 10 plays, one for each decade, chronicling African-American life in the 20th century.
Southers, 49, who first met Wilson as a photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier, the city's black newspaper, is an actor and playwright as well as a director, but he got into theater late. Until November, he worked for 18 years for U.S. Steel in Pittsburgh.
"I ran a tractor, an overhead crane, worked as a janitor,'' Southers says. "I was probably the worst janitor they ever had. I started writing my plays at night using an endless supply of U.S. Steel paper.''
Once he got the theater bug, Southers accomplished a great deal in his time outside the steel mill. He founded Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co., which has produced eight Wilson plays. In 2003, the company's first play was Ma Rainey, and Wilson, who had won two Pulitzer Prizes at that point, came to see it. The playwright died in 2005.
Last year, Southers was named artistic director of theater initiatives for Pittsburgh's new August Wilson Center for African American Culture, which freed him to leave U.S. Steel. "Where I'm at now is all about shining as much light on Mr. Wilson's work as possible,'' he says.
Southers' relationship with Wilson, and his Hill District roots, gives him tremendous insight as a director of the plays. "August's work is real vivid to me because I'm in the midst of it,'' he says. "I know the streets, I know the characters. For example, the name of a judge mentioned in one of Wilson's plays . . . I was his paperboy. I used to deliver the Pittsburgh Courier to him when I was a kid. He lived three blocks from my grandmother.''
Ma Rainey, the only Wilson play not set in Pittsburgh, takes place in a Chicago recording studio in 1927. "A lot of people come to this play expecting to hear a whole bunch of music by Ma Rainey, and it's not about that,'' Southers says. "It's really about these musicians, who were held in high regard. They wore fine clothes. They traveled. They ate well. They had great stories. They were like ambassadors.''
American Stage has assembled a strong cast for Ma Rainey, with several actors who have been in previous Wilson productions at the theater, such as Sharon Scott, Brandii, Kim Sullivan, Ron Bobb-Semple and Alan Bomar Jones.
Southers' experience at American Stage has been so much fun that he's getting married there. On Saturday afternoon, two hours before the matinee performance of Ma Rainey, he and Neicy Readie will go onstage to exchange their vows. He and Readie, a flight attendant for US Airways, have a 3-year-old son together. They have about 25 friends and family members from Pittsburgh coming for the wedding.
Southers has scripted the ceremony. "I've written a 10-page play for the service,'' he says. "Neicy is expecting, so it's a shotgun wedding.''
Why get married in St. Petersburg instead of his hometown, Pittsburgh? Southers replies like a true snowbird.
"Because it's warmer here,'' he says. "It's a great getaway in the winter for a director.''
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.