Theater archives

August Wilson’s New Main Man


“I can’t replace Lloyd Richards,” says director Marion McClinton, sitting inside the Virginia Theatre, where August Wilson’s King Hedley II opens April 29. “The fact that Lloyd existed is why I’m here to begin with. I’m somebody who has been handed a torch, and I am just now realizing that this torch is heavy.”

Richards, now close to 80 and retired from directing, had been the presiding spirit over Wilson’s trailblazing career, helming six of Wilson’s plays—from Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in 1984 to 1996’s Seven Guitars. But over the years of collaboration the men began to drift apart, and Richards’s productions started to feel grandiose and airless. Their influential partnership lost its sizzle.

With Richards’s retirement, McClinton stepped in as Wilson’s new director. He’d mounted a number of Wilson revivals in Pittsburgh and St. Paul—Fences, Seven Guitars, Ma Rainey, and Jitney. Now he’s directing a Wilson premiere. An Obie winner for last season’s New York production of Jitney, McClinton has brought speed and warmth to Wilson’s earthy and streetwise poetics—a seismic shift from Richards’s statelier production style. McClinton has also created a different rehearsal environment. Genial, burly, and loquacious, the 46-year-old director gives Wilson freer rein. Where Richards restricted Wilson’s interactions with actors, McClinton promotes a democratic atmosphere in which actors openly discuss their characters with the playwright.

“What you see on the stage is largely Marion’s vision of what my plays could be,” says Wilson. “I owe an incalculable debt to him. It was Marion who saw the value in Jitney, when he did it as an actor 20 years ago. He put it in his briefcase and took it around for all the theaters in the Twin Cities. He tried unsuccessfully to get a production of it. So when I got another opportunity to do Jitney, I said, ‘We’ve got to get Marion.’ ”

The Broadway debut of King Hedley II may be McClinton’s highest-profile assignment so far, but there’s more in the hopper. After the opening, McClinton turns his sights to Kia Corthron’s latest play, Breath, Boom, which starts previews May 31 at Playwrights Horizons. Thomas Schumacher of Disney Theatricals has teamed McClinton up with Suzan-Lori Parks as the director of Hoopz, a basketball musical about the life and times of the Harlem Globetrotters. McClinton has also been shopping around Michael Henry Brown’s corrosive and unsparing drama Generations of the Dead or Into the Abyss of Coney Island Madness, urging New York producers to mount it.

“Kia is David Mamet if he had a social soul,” McClinton says. “I like David’s work, don’t get me wrong. But Kia displays a social responsibility that comes out of her own humanity. Her integrity as a writer and a human being are beyond question and reproach. Michael Henry Brown is another writer who takes the dark side of human life and thrusts it into your face without apology.”

McClinton’s career as first-rate director seems to be slowly eclipsing his other life as a playwright. His daredevil plays—Walkers, Who Causes the Darkness? and the searing Police Boys—confront issues of race, sex, violence, and the precarious scales of sanity and insanity among African Americans. Teeming with boplike flights of language, his plays are urban purgatories in which realistically drawn characters wrestle with their spiritual demons.

“At different points in time I was heavily into alcohol and drugs, I was heavily into violent confrontation,” the director explains. “Two events—the death of my mother and six weeks later the birth of my son—altered me forever. One, I don’t have the human guide that was guiding me through life and helped me get back to the direction of the light. Today I’m the person that has to do that, which has made a difference in the way I approach my work. Before I saw life as just bleak. But with the birth of my son, I saw that the future not only holds hope, it holds life. It holds dreams. We struggle between the light and dark sides of the soul.”

Spiritual redemption is one of the compelling Afro-Christian themes in King Hedley II. Like all Wilson’s plays, it’s set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, this time in 1985. An ex-con, played by Brian Stokes Mitchell, yearns for a better life, eventually making a heroic sacrifice for the sake of his family. King Hedley II is the eighth play in Wilson’s quest to create a 10-play cycle about the African American experience in the 20th century.

For McClinton, it was the third play in Wilson’s cycle that set him down his current path. “For me the American theater starts with August’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” McClinton says. “My own writing started with that play. It changed my life. I’m a director who does the work of black playwrights. People ask me, Do I want to get more universal? I say, ‘Well, what universe are you talking about? Is it a universe that looks more like you than me?’ Hopefully, given my work with Kia and Michael, I can continue a tradition that Lloyd started. It’s an awesome responsibility, and I take it very seriously. August is a great writer, a master. Other directors would usually say that after doing this kind of work, they’re now able to do plays like Three Sisters or King Lear. After doing King Hedley II, I’m now able to attempt Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.”

Related article:

Michael Feingold’s review of August Wilson’s Jitney.