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Stage Preview: Playwrights opens with Wilson's 'Rainey'

Friday, March 07, 2003

BY CHRISTOPHER RAWSON, POST-GAZETTE DRAMA EDITOR

With a name like Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater, who else to feature in your debut production but August Wilson? It's still a gutsy choice.

 
 
STAGE PREVIEW

'MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM'

WHERE: Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater at Penn Theater, 4809 Penn Ave., Bloomfield/Garfield.

TICKETS: $19.50-22.50 (group rates available); 412-441-2213.

   
 

"I had to," says Mark Southers, artistic director. "He's the heavyweight -- not just in Pittsburgh, but the world. And I think we're going to do it justice. People will see a professional show."

The Pittsburgh born-and-raised Southers, 41, collaborated with Wilson at Alaska's Valdez Theater Festival in 1998 along with then-Pitt grad students Javon Johnson and Derrick Sanders. A part-time actor and busy playwright with seven scripts under his belt, some already produced professionally, Southers took the leap into entrepreneurship last fall by taking over the Penn Avenue Theater in Bloomfield/Garfield.

Re-christened the Penn Theater, it is now host to the boldly named Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater, which tonight launches a first season that will eventually add plays by Southers, Rob Penny and Javon Johnson to "Ma Rainey." That, of course, is the drama with which Wilson made his first Broadway appearance in 1984 and which Whoopi Goldberg and Charles Dutton are reviving on Broadway right now.

"I didn't know they'd be doing it on Broadway," Southers says. The more worrisome competition might be previous productions at the Pittsburgh Public Theater and Kuntu Rep. But Southers knows that there's still a large audience that's never seen August Wilson's work in general, let alone this play.

To find that audience, Southers has been advertising heavily on WAMO. "I want to get people involved in theater who usually aren't. I have real close friends who don't go to plays, except Downtown" -- usually touring black gospel comedies.

Southers explains what he's up to by analogy with his brother, who always wanted to share his enthusiasms -- "He'd say, 'taste this, see this, smell this.' When he had a fish on his line, he'd hand me the rod, so I could get the same feeling he did." Southers wants to return that favor to his friends, knowing that "theater is addictive."

Starting a theater space and nurturing a company, too, has taken some birthing pains. Pittsburgh Playwrights aims to be the fourth predominantly black theater company in town, joining Kuntu Rep, New Horizon and the equally young African Grove.

To get the needed experience, Southers prevailed on Kuntu's Eileen Morris to direct "Ma Rainey." Together, they enlisted a cast stiffened with experienced hands. Among the leads, Teri Bridget plays Ma Rainey, while the older men in her band are played by Garbie Dukes, Chuck Timbers and Wali Jamal. Jay Jones from Atlanta plays Levee.

Southers has gradually confronted the myriad other details that make theater so frustrating and rewarding at the same time. He even designed the set, his first -- no small feat for a three-level set packed into an intimate theater where you also have to leave space for 11 actors. And he's learning to cope with the central support beam that has bothered all the companies in that space, from the Upstairs Theatre to Michael Moats' Penn Avenue company.

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