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Theater Note: New Penn Theater plans ambitious lineup

Thursday, December 19, 2002

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Editor

Theatrical entrepreneurs come in many forms. Welcome Mark Clayton Southers, 41 -- playwright, father, actor, heavy equipment operator for U.S. Steel, former Pittsburgh Courier photographer and a man willing to take a risk to pursue his love of theater.

 
 

Penn Theater Schedule

   
 

And welcome his newly named home, the Penn Theater at 4809 Penn Ave. in Bloomfield-Garfield.

When Michael Moats, who ran the same space as the Penn Avenue Theater for four years, decided to liquidate and go to grad school, Southers bought Moats' theater equipment and leased the first-floor theater space and basement from the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. That deal was done in mid-fall.

One theater tenant, the Sunday Night Live reading series, has continued, and Southers' Penn Theater is already co-producing with Renaissance Publications its first show, "Christmas Is Comin' Uptown," a musical transposing "A Christmas Carol" to contemporary Harlem.

Now Southers has announced the outlines of Penn Theater's first full year of operation, including an ambitious inaugural season for his own Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater. Opening with August Wilson's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," it will continue with plays by Rob Penny, Southers and Javon Johnson -- four African-American Pittsburgh playwrights.

Besides Sunday Night Live, which expects to start staging scripts it has done so far only in seated readings, other Penn Theater tenants will include In Good Company, led by Samantha Camp, who previously led Immersion Theatre; Ron "O.J." Parson's Ripe Mango Productions; and Moats, who plans a Charles Ludlam play for the spring. There also will be a children's theater.

Southers says he doesn't intend that his own company will always do black plays. "Because most of the Pittsburgh playwrights I know are African American, that's our first season." He hopes to enlist different artistic directors for subsequent seasons, but he adds: "I'm taking it on myself to be artistic director for this first season, and I'm picking plays I like."

Southers intends to pay participants, as he is doing already on "Christmas Is Comin' Uptown." That's one reason he's become a producer: "We want people to work in this city."

Although he has acted, Southers' chief theatrical passion is playwriting. He's written seven plays -- Kuntu Repertory Theater will stage his "Ashes to Africa" in the spring -- and is working on several more. As he talks about them, his face shines with excitement, summoning parallel images of August Wilson describing a story he's in the grip of.

Southers knows running a theater can consume your life, but he hopes it won't interfere with his writing. "When I do write, I write fast, then I hone it through readings. Now I'll have the added advantage of being able to call in actors and work on a scene" -- and a place to do it, other than his own home, where he's convened reading groups in the past.

Among his mentors, Southers counts Wilson, Pitt playwright Penny and Johnson. Ultimately, of course, all mentorship paths lead back to Vernell Lillie, founder and artistic director of Kuntu Repertory Company, great Pittsburgh incubator of African-American theater talent.

"What I learned from Dr. Lillie and Kuntu," Southers says, "is always to put your best out there -- sets, acting, everything."

Penn Theater Schedule

For information, call 412-441-2213

Pittsburgh Playwrights' Theater Company; Mark Southers, artistic director.

August Wilson, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" (Feb. 27-March 23).

Rob Penny, "Boppin' With the Ancestors" (June 5-29).

Mark Clayton Southers, "When the Water Turns Clear" (Sept. 4-28).

Javon Johnson, "Hambone" (Nov. 6-30).

Sunday Night Live; weekly play reading forum (script tiles and writers TBA), Christopher Scott artistic director:

Feb. 16, 23; March 2, 9, 16, 30; April 6, 13; May 4, 18; June 1, 8 (end of current season).

Sunday Night Live Unseated (staged readings):

Brad Keller, "I Need Better Lighting" (April 24-27).

Two new plays TBA (Aug. 14-23).

Ripe Mango Productions, Ron "O.J." Parson, artistic director.

The Chicago Series: "Asylum" (Feb. 20-23); TBA (May 22-25); TBA (Oct. 2-5).

Michael Moats (no production company name yet):

Charles Ludlam, "Reverse Psychology" (March 27-April 6).

In Good Company; Samantha Camp, artistic director:

Three plays by Edward Albee, TBA (May 1-18, June 10-27, Oct. 9-26).

The Penn Theater's Children's Theater Company:

Rose, Udell, Sherman, "Christmas Is Comin' Uptown" (female version).


Christopher Rawson can be reached at crawson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1666.

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