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Theatrical up -and-comers find inspiration from August Wilson, each other

Sunday, January 26, 2003

Stories by Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Editor

Derrick Sanders: Busy director, theater founder

Since the trips to Grahamstown, South Africa, and Valdez, Alaska, in the summer of 1998, the theatrical fortunes of the Pittsburgh Three -- Javon Johnson, Derrick Sanders and Mark Clayton Southers -- have continued to intertwine even as they branch out into independent careers.

Derrick Sanders directs Angela Hunt and Kevin Brown as they rehearse "Cryin' Shame" in the University of Pittsburgh's Alumni Hall -- an appropriately named site for Sanders and the playwright, Javon Johnson, who met as Pitt grad students. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

The following year, Johnson and Sanders finished their MFA degrees at Pitt -- the final class in a program canceled by the university. Then, Johnson was an actor just starting to write plays; now, he's a recognized playwright with a dozen scripts, many already staged. August Wilson says, "I think he's very talented. He has a lot to learn, but he has his own voice."

Sanders is on a director track. After staging Johnson's "Cryin' Shame" for Kuntu, he returns to Chicago to direct Johnson's "Homebound" for ETA Theater. His own Chicago company, Congo Square, is a comer, and the Wilson connection has led to the mentorship of Wilson's top-line director, Marion McClinton.

Southers returned from Valdez determined to be a playwright. Of his seven plays to date, several have been produced. He also has taken on the Penn Theater, where the first season of his Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater will include plays by him, Wilson, Johnson and Rob Penny, the long-established Pittsburgh playwright who has been his mentor.

In reviewing Southers' "When the Water Turns Clear" in 2001, Chris Jones in The Chicago Tribune grouped him with Johnson and Marta Effinger as evidence that, "With August Wilson as an involved mentor and the Kuntu Rep as a proving ground ... Pittsburgh is spawning some very capable young black playwrights ... one of the most exciting -- and under-reported -- recent developments in the American theater."

Derrick Sanders: Busy director, theater founder

Of the three, Sanders is the shortest, the most ebullient and the one with the quickest wit. They all get things done, but Sanders bustles. Southers thinks that if Sanders weren't so set on running a theater, he could go to Hollywood and make it big as a comic actor.

In Valdez, the Pittsburgh Three joined in readings of Wilson plays with Delroy Lindo, Ella Joyce and Wilson himself. It was heady stuff. Sanders was so elated he phoned Reggie Nelson, a friend from college, in Chicago, to say they had Wilson's support for the theater company they planned. He was headed to Chicago after Pitt because he wanted the greater opportunity of a larger, more cosmopolitan city.

"That summer of 1998 was the foundation," Sanders says. "We had so much support from Pittsburgh, Pitt theater and Kuntu. Then we learned a lot from being in other cultures, and we made a lot of connections."

Born and raised in Newport News, Va., Sanders went to Howard University in Washington, then chose Pitt for grad school "because of opportunities with Kuntu and because the Pitt grad program was more focused on developing individual artists," not just training for specific jobs.

At Kuntu, its founder, Vernell Lillie, took them under her wing. "When I said I wanted to start a company, she just started talking and opened my mind. ... I learned a lot from my experiences in Pittsburgh, and I take it all with me."

He took it to Chicago, packing up his Honda Civic and sailing forth. Within a year, Congo Square was born -- one of five (now four) professional black companies there. It's named after the infamous site of New Orleans slave auctions, later a center of mixed cultures and jazz. As artistic director, Sanders "brought August to the table" while his partner, Reggie Nelson, raised $15,000 from a friend who liked the partners' passion. Johnson is literary manager

"We didn't want to sit around and say, 'I wonder what black play the Goodman Theater will do this year,' " says Sanders. "We want to do what we want to do."

The company premiere was a 10th anniversary production of Wilson's "The Piano Lesson." Sanders remembers that "August came to see it and threw down the gauntlet with a speech to the audience, saying, 'If they stop doing this kind of work, you stop coming.'"

Wilson says he went with limited expectations, "but their production values were so high, better than in some regional theaters." He has since made generous financial contributions, and "I try to talk other people into giving them money, too."

Congo Square has done three plays each season in rented spaces, which are hard to find, "just like on Broadway." Sanders longs for Southers' space on Penn Avenue: "If I had that in Chicago, there'd be no stopping me!"

Congo Square quickly put itself on the map. "We've raised our audience base by 50 percent each year and have been named one of Chicago's top 10 theaters by the Chicago Sun-Times," Sanders says, "We're in the black." And its next show, for the opening reading of which Sanders had to rush back to Chicago last week, is a co-production with the Tony-winning Steppenwolf Theater -- the first time Steppenwolf has collaborated with a black theater or shared its main stage with any other company at all.

The Valdez connection gained Sanders access to rehearsals of Wilson plays in several cities. Soon he will assist Marion McClinton, director of Wilson's ninth major play, "Gem of the Ocean," premiering at the Goodman, April 18-May 24. "I want to learn the process. They're excited to pass on their knowledge. I'm coming to listen and learn."

Sanders likens the close director-playwright relationship between longtime friends McClinton and Wilson to that between himself and Johnson. "Both of them have taken us under their wings. ... It helps that Javon is out in the industry, doing his thing. He meets people and I meet people -- it's worked for us."

Javon Johnson: 'Success isn't easy' on a hot playwright

Handsome and articulate, Johnson has gone from success to success -- writing, acting, teaching and picking up awards. But as he races around, it's nip and tuck to support his wife, Paula, and their twins, Timothy and Paul, who turn 1 1/2 tomorrow and now are living back in their native South Carolina. August Wilson once told an interviewer that playwrights can make a lot of money, but Johnson protested: "You're August! I'm just Javon."

Times have changed in the five years since the Pittsburgh Three -- from left, Derrick Sanders, Mark Clayton Southers and Javon Johnson -- hooked up in Valdez, Alaska. "I'm a better writer now," Johnson says. "I'm more courageous in what I'm willing to explore." (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

He's on the road more often than not, pursuing paid work. It's hard being separated from his family, and it leaves so little time to write that he complains that hardly one of his dozen plays has been workshopped and polished as it should.

So it's no surprise that, meeting in a Pitt cafeteria after a panel discussion, Johnson is deep in cell phone conversation with his wife, one of several each day. "She's been on this suffering journey with me," he says, "ever since I put her on my little bandwagon." Other calls cut in -- one from the Goodman Theater about an acting job he won't take because it would delay his return to his family.

After acting in his "Cryin' Shame" at Kuntu, he's off to act in a workshop at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, then back to Chicago for the final tech week of his "Homebound" at Chicago's ETA. Then rehearsals begin for Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean," in which he'll understudy.

He says he usually turns down acting jobs as too time-consuming. He says he took this one at Kuntu just to get back to Pittsburgh, but it's his last acting job -- then admits he says that mainly to convince himself.

What this successful playwright most needs, while waiting for a big hit or a lottery jackpot, is a job that pays the bills. "I'm being pulled between my family and career." They moved back to South Carolina because, with Johnson traveling, his wife needed their families' help with the twins.

That was two years ago, but no South Carolina theater has shown any interest in him or his work. "It's like I'm an alien, even though I'm a native." Johnson nearly gave up and took work in a textile mill.

You have to drag all this out of him. Normally, he talks about his many successes.

"Cryin' Shame" had an award-winning premiere in Los Angeles in 2001 with Malcolm-Jamal Warner, then went to the National Black Theatre Festival, so Kuntu's "is really its second production." His "Hambone" recently had a reading at Frank Silvera's writers' workshop in New York -- Wilson came to that.

The good reason his plays haven't been workshopped much is that they've been seized for production so quickly. "That's not as frightening for me as maybe for the producers," Johnson jokes. "[Even] when I feel they haven't been fully nurtured yet, I have to be confident in myself. ... [But] I'm constantly changing my skills and evolving." Of his first play, "Papa's Blues," he says, "I'm a better writer now, I'm more courageous in what I'm willing to explore."

He did get to workshop "Hambone" at Sundance, and he hopes for that experience with his other plays. He wishes he had had more patience to get things right, because the first impressions your work makes can be lasting. So he's in no rush to see his plays published, though three have been included in anthologies.

Playwriting usually pays off slowly, over time. In an attempt to cash in more quickly, Johnson joined with director George Faison to create a play for the commercial black touring circuit that carries the gospel-tinged melodramas and comedies of the "Beauty Shop" type. Their "Things That Lovers Do" stars Chante Moore and Kenny Lattimore, who have an album of love songs by the same name. This week it started off on an East Coast tour.

"There's tons of money in this business," Johnson says. "People get rich off it. They play to very large houses and sell out." But you have to write for entertainers unused to handling language, not for trained actors. You can't dodge certain schlocky aspects, but he hopes "to create an experience beyond just stereotypes and entertainment."

Stage Preview: "Cryin' Shame"
Where: Kuntu Repertory Theatre at Alumni Hall, 4227 Fifth Ave., Oakland.

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 4 p.m. Sundays. Performances run through Feb. 8.

Tickets: $15 and $20; discounts; 412-624-7298.


In the search for financial stability, he and his twins did a Hanes socks commercial -- "at least they have money to pay for their diapers." He also made the semifinal cut for a well-paid Disney fellowship program to train TV writers. They loved his plays, but he'd never written a TV script, so he had too much catching up to do. "Sometimes I have to miss opportunities, but I can't let it get me down."

As Johnson tells students, "Be your own creative spirit. You never know what you'll be inspired by. Write what's important to you -- don't deprive someone of your gift."

He's talking to himself as well.

Mark Clayton Southers: Life experience boosts playwright, entrepreneur

Mark says he has gypsy blood," says Sanders: "He sure has the gift of gab" -- and rich life experience to back it up.

"The year of South Africa and Alaska was also the year my dad died," Southers recalls, "but it was still the best year of my life." On those trips, he felt first like an outsider -- that's one reason he began writing, to emulate Johnson. But he was mainly inspired by Wilson, who said three things that stuck: You start out with a blank sheet of paper, "the same as Shakespeare or Leonardo"; you can begin anywhere in your play; and you can write anything you want. This advice "took the shackles off my imagination, it unlocked a door in my mind."

Wilson was impressed in return. He notes Southers' entrepreneurial spirit, "Mark is the businessman in the group, he makes things happen." For four years Southers ran a monthly August Wilson Reading Round Table in his home; now he's taken on the Penn Theater. Southers wrote poetry and novels before turning to plays. Now, he talks about his plays with the same concentrated excitement as Wilson.

Born on Schenley Heights in the Hill, Southers went to Schenley High School, spent one semester at Tuskegee Institute then spent a second semester working for his uncle at El Dorado Nate's, a car wash in Detroit. That was his education -- but he's made the world his university.

He came back to Pittsburgh to continue coaching Little League, as he had for years. (He recalls when the young Wilson used to read stories to Little League kids at Kennard Field.) At 19, he became chief photographer for the New Pittsburgh Courier, very conscious of the legacy of Teenie Harris. Though offered an internship at the Post-Gazette and almost hired by The Pittsburgh Press, he was persuaded to stay at the Courier, with a brief stint at the Daily News in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. ("I had the graveyard shift, but I got to hang out all day on the beaches.")

Along the way, Southers developed a lucrative sideline providing washroom attendants for a string of Pittsburgh clubs and restaurants. ("I was always enterprising -- I sold worms when I was 10 or 11.") That extra income went into rental properties he renovated himself and still owns.

Laid off from the Courier, he went to work at U.S. Steel. "I was on the crew that poured the last steel ingots at Edgar Thomson," and he has a burn mark as a souvenir. Then they called him to the Irwin Works, where he's now been nine years. About the same time, at age 30, he discovered acting through Kuntu, which he first joined as a photographer.

Married in 1992, he and his wife have a physically-challenged daughter (now almost 9) who once needed regular nursing care. That took a huge toll on their marriage, now dissolved. Although he was then a crane man at U.S. Steel making a hefty wage, he bid into maintenance so he could set his own hours and help with her care. There was a bonus: In the small hours of the night, there was "a stack of paper and a big old 'Battlestar Gallactica' of an electric typewriter" where he could write.

"As August said, 'Words are free.' I was trying to catch up to Javon."

His first play, "The Third Pedestal," was very personal, working out his anger at his mother. "What I found out from writing it was that I wasn't mad at her any more." His second was "When the Water Turns Clear," which Penny helped get produced at Chicago's ETA, where it garnered the admiring Chicago Tribune review that identified Southers as part of a Pittsburgh school of young black playwrights. He'll stage it at his Penn Theater later this year.

"When the Water Turns Clear" is dedicated to Johnson, Wilson, Penny and Lillie -- all his mentors. Penny taught him about his African roots; Wilson unlocked his ability; "Doc" (Lillie) introduced him to theater and taught him "always put your best out there"; and Johnson is his friend and spur.

His new company's first show will be Wilson's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." Southers knows he has a lot to learn about directing, so he will co-direct with Kuntu managing director Eileen Morris.

His education continues.

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

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