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The Pittsburgh 3: An Alaska gathering of theatrical heavyweights sparked the careers of the talented trio now collaborating at Kuntu Rep

Sunday, January 26, 2003

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Editor

For three African-American actors from Pittsburgh -- two Pitt grad students and a heavy equipment operator at U.S. Steel -- Valdez, Alaska, seems an unlikely place in which to bond.

Longtime friends and now colleagues with intertwined careers, from left, Derrick Sanders, Javon Johnson and Mark Clayton Southers are collaborating on the Kuntu Repertory Theatre production of Johnson's play, "Cryin' Shame." (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

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Two were young, one not much older, and all were relative innocents in the world of theater when Valdez -- and the chance to hobnob with August Wilson and Edward Albee -- gave the Pittsburgh Three a jump-start in 1998.

Nearly five years later, they have independent theatrical careers. Javon Johnson, 29, is a hot young playwright. Derrick Sanders, 28, is co-founder of Chicago's Congo Square Theater and will be assistant director of the newest Wilson play, "Gem of the Ocean." And with the most surprising life story, Mark Clayton Southers, 41, is a promising playwright and new proprietor of the Penn Theater in Garfield.

The three are now reunited at Kuntu Repertory Theatre in Pittsburgh, where Sanders has directed Johnson's "Cryin' Shame" (through Feb. 8), in which Johnson and Southers both act. And Kuntu's next show will be Southers' "Ashes to Africa."

But how did the theatrical novices finagle their way to Alaska? Improbably enough, it began the previous month in South Africa.

Sanders and Johnson had met as University of Pittsburgh grad students and had been directed by another student, Kevin Wetmore, in "The Island," a South African play about blacks in prison under apartheid. Another friend, Neilesh Bose, suggested they go to South Africa's Grahamstown Theatre Festival fringe, where he had contacts.

So they called themselves Each One Tell One and raised the money to take two Johnson one-acts to Grahamstown. But at the last minute, Johnson's first play, "Papa's Blues," won Kennedy Center's Lorraine Hansberry Award, along with a one-month scholarship to the O'Neill Theatre Center in Connecticut, and Johnson would be going there instead. To fill Johnson's place, Sanders suggested Southers, with whom he'd acted at Kuntu. So Southers found himself on a free trip to South Africa.

One day Sanders and Southers read in a Grahamstown paper that August Wilson would give a master class in playwriting there, so they got up early, found their way, sat right down front and made themselves known. Southers took lots of notes, figuring he owed that to Johnson for his free trip -- and in the process caught the playwriting bug himself. Wilson enjoyed meeting fellow Pittsburghers, though when Sanders told him about his plans to start his own theater, he thought, "Oh, yeah, yeah, I've heard that before."

Fortuitous circumstances five years ago brought the Pittsburgh Three to Valdez, Alaska, where they were befriended by playwright August Wilson (second from left) and actor Delroy Lindo (second from right) at the annual Edward Albee Theater Conference. The gathering helped propel the careers of, from left, Derrick Sanders, Mark Clayton Southers and Javon Johnson.

They had barely returned when they heard from Johnson in Connecticut: His play had been selected for the annual Edward Albee Theater Conference in Valdez in a few weeks, where Wilson would be the 1998 honoree. But he had to come up with several thousand dollars plane fare on his own.

Southers swung into action. Phoning Valdez, he charmed them with talk of South Africa, mesmerized them with talk of Wilson, realized the festival needed black actors, offered their services and secured free plane tickets for all three. Both Sanders and Johnson thought Southers was joking when he called with the news, but a week later they were flying to Anchorage and then over the mountain to Valdez.

Johnson remembers that mountain -- "this presence, watching over us." Sanders recalls the huge gift baskets they got -- "Mark, who did you tell these people we are?" he asked. "We're just three guys from Pittsburgh." Southers couldn't believe he was in Alaska -- "I work in a steel mill!"

Wilson was surprised to see them. They bonded and were dubbed the Pittsburgh Three. Wilson told Sanders he'd help him start a theater company. Johnson and Southers wrote around the clock. They were on their way.

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