Running down that hill in Grahamstown, South Africa, six years ago, Mark Clayton Southers wasn't thinking about writing plays. The hill was steep, for one thing, and Southers and fellow Pittsburgher Derrick Sanders didn't quite know how to get where they wanted to go. Plus they were late.
When they finally arrived, the classroom was packed. Southers recognized August Wilson -- growing up in Schenley Heights, he used to see the Hill District-born playwright reading to kids up at Kennard Field. He might even have photographed him in his days shooting for the New Pittsburgh Courier.
Now, as he and Sanders had read in a local paper minutes earlier, Wilson was here teaching a master class in playwriting at the Grahamstown Theatre Festival. Southers was here only because another friend, Javon Johnson, was unable to attend at the last minute. Southers appreciated the opportunity. But he was an actor, not a playwright like Johnson and Sanders, and all he wanted to tell the famous man was that a mutual acquaintance of theirs back home, a poet, had died.
"He's talking about playwriting; I'm not paying any attention to it, you know," Southers says. "Then he said something that opened a little opening in my brain.
"He said, â€˜You can start anywhere you want.'
"I said, â€˜Well, I'm going to take some notes for Javon.'"
A few months earlier, Southers had begun to write a little, including a letter to one of his brothers about their father, who'd just died. But he didn't feel comfortable with the process. Today, he recounts Wilson's talk as if it were a life-changing sermon:
"Then he says, â€˜You can put anything you want in a play. Anything you want. It's up to you to make it believable.' That's another good note. Wrote that down. Then he said, â€˜Just like Shakespeare, just like Picasso would have a blank canvas in front of him and create, so can you.'
"And then he said, â€˜Words are free.' And I'm like, â€˜Fuck yeah! That's something I can do!'"
Today Southers is an award-winning playwright who operates his own theater company. He's a stage director of growing confidence. He's a theatrical entrepreneur who's getting noticed locally not only in stage circles, but also by cultural movers and shakers. And in his own grounded, hands-on sort of way, he's a visionary who wants to make theater that matters -- that even breaks down racial barriers in a racially divided community.
Southers -- by day a heavy-equipment operator for U.S. Steel -- is still running. But six years after that serendipitous encounter with August Wilson, he knows what he's after. Thinking that theater can change the world, and trying to make as much of it as possible, he just might be running harder, and in more directions, than anyone in Pittsburgh theater.
A short, narrow ground-floor hallway and a steep flight of stairs lead to the humid basement of the Penn Theater. It's a cavernous, shadowy space, pyloned with riveted steel columns and alcoves fashioned from the remains of theatrical productions -- chairs, tables, blond wigs peeking from half-opened cardboard boxes, a mock stained-glass window. From deep in one of these spaces come the loud, angry voices of actors rehearsing an argument. Upstairs, there's the thump of footsteps on wooden floorboards -- more actors and crew in the lobby, awaiting their own rehearsals and a cast photo shoot. And in the basement, slouched on an overstuffed sofa, is a 42-year-old man at the vortex of a whirlpool of his own devise, Mark Southers.
Southers is calm, but he's not at rest; he seldom is. At 5 p.m., he met actor Mark Thompson here to rehearse the one-act, one-man play Southers is directing for the Pittsburgh New Works Festival. Around 7 p.m., Southers came downstairs and started arranging furniture on the low concrete pad at the foot of the basement steps, a makeshift stage for rehearsing his own new play, Ma Noah.
Southers is directing Ma Noah for New Horizon Theater. But for the past two years he's also run Penn Theater and its resident Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Company. That explains everyone else here: The shouting actors in the further reaches of the basement, and some of those upstairs, are rehearsing one-acts for the PPTC's second annual Theater Festival in Black and White, which Southers, who's African-American, created to counter the racial segregation in local theater. The actors in the lobby, hauling their costumes in plastic bags and awaiting the photo shoot, are from the just-closed, Southers-produced run of August Wilson's Fences. And in the main stage area, next to the Fences stage Southers designed and built, the young performers working out bits are members of Mr. Goodbird, a sketch-comedy group with a show the following weekend.
Southers guides his five-actor cast through several scenes of Ma Noah, set for its Pittsburgh premiere at the Kelly-Strayhorn Community Performing Arts Center on Oct. 8, just over two weeks away. Once during the three-hour session, he stands and paces deeper into the basement to ask that other rehearsal to keep it down. He'd rather rehearse Ma Noah somewhere quieter, but he doesn't really pull rank, either: With New Horizon yet to provide a promised rehearsal venue, Southers can't boot out paying tenants (Goodbird) or the artists working on his very own 12-day Black and White fest -- which opens the week after Ma Noah. He just hopes that none of his theatrical racehorses trips any of the others on their sprint to opening night.
Southers is a big man, high-shouldered like the jock he used to be, with a tall forehead, full cheeks and a belly whose growth he jokes about. Despite his soft-spoken, almost sleepy presence he always seems to have an air of mission about him.
That's certainly where he's at rehearsing Ma Noah, a play that premiered in February with a student production at Chicago's Columbia College -- Southers' reward for winning the school's Theodore Ward Prize for African-American plays. Ensconced on the basement couch, he's dressed in blue jeans, black Fila kicks and a well-faded National Black Theatre Festival T-shirt. His black billed cap pulled down like an outfielder's for an afternoon game, he's watching Monique Pappas, Nathan James, Mark Heath and Tonia Marie Milbourne run a bustling, Saturday-night scene from the drama about a strong-willed African-American mother who goes to extraordinary lengths to help her four troubled children. It's a gritty play -- single motherhood, drug dealing, exotic dancing, scatology -- but a funny one, too. The family "may appear dysfunctional," Southers writes in a synopsis, "but [its members] are merely making their way through life."
Southers stops the rehearsal right after a two-line exchange between Larry (played by Heath) and Francine (Milbourne); he explains he's "fine-tuning" because Heath -- a Columbia student who played Larry in the Chicago production -- knows his lines already, and Southers doesn't want him committing to certain movements.
"You know how you think of a good rip and you want to get it out real quick?" Southers coaches Heath. Then he makes the actors run it four times.
Southers didn't direct his first play until 2003. But he's picking up the craft the way he picks up everything: fast.
Vernell Lillie, the doyenne of African-American theater in Pittsburgh, met Southers when he was a photographer for Kuntu. Then he started acting. "He has energy and he has charisma," she says. As a playwright, he quickly outgrew the beginner's "autobiographical" phase. "He's not locked into a pattern," says Lillie. "Each play moves to another place, another time."
Southers' progress was aided by readings of his plays at Chris Scott's local "Sunday Night Live" series, but soon his work was getting attention out of town, too. When the Water Turns Clear, Southers' 1999 portrait of a Hill District family, was produced by Chicago's ETA theater. His Ashes to Africa, first produced in Dayton, Ohio, follows a family after the death of their grandmother, who asked to be cremated, her remains scattered over Africa. Reviewing Kuntu's own Lillie-directed 2003 production of Ashes, CP's Ted Hoover wrote, "[W]e feel as if we've been plopped down into the middle of the neighbors' house with a chance to eavesdrop" on characters "urgently human and detailed to the smallest nuance."
Southers' ear for dialogue is a strong suit. Actor Eileen Morris recalls chatting with him one day about the conference-call relationship she has with some old friends back home, one of whom had a surprising romance. Not too long after, acting in Southers' The Girls from Kankakee for last year's Black and White fest, she was struck by his facility. "It's like he listened to our conversation," says Morris, who's also New Horizon's managing director.
Ma Noah might be Southers' best-received work yet. "There's always ghetto plays," says Chuck Smith, who directed the Columbia production. "But [Southers] erases the stereotype by introducing us to the stereotype in a way we can't ignore."
At the same time, while Ma Noah is theater with a message, its lessons don't shove aside its characters. "It doesn't fluff around, it doesn't blame anybody," says Chuck Smith, who directed the play's Chicago production. "It just shows you what these people are going through and why they make the choices they make....It puts you right there in the middle of it."
Southers' faculty for writing believable characters sounds a lot like the very thing that he says drives him: the voices he hears.
"The voices are in there, they're saying what they need to say. Screaming to get out. I feel like a conduit for stories," he says. "I have all kind of stories going on in my head, scenarios, just observing people, trying to make their life better at least on paper.
"When you create your characters and place them in situations, they tell their own story," he adds.
Since completing Ma Noah, Southers has written three more plays, including an experimental futuristic drama called Nine Days in the Sun. And his production schedule might leave some bigger, better-funded theaters sucking air: eight plays last season for PPTC, the company he founded to produce works by local playwrights past and present; the Black and White Fest, with eight one-acts last fall and 12 this year; and last summer's Pittsburgh Pride Festival, with its eight gay- and lesbian-themed one-acts (some by local writers). For good measure, Southers also remounted last spring's PPTC production of Dorothy 6, by James McManus, on Sundays only starting in September; at some point it will overlap with Fences, Ma Noah, and both the New Works and Black and White festivals.
Nine Days in the Sun, meanwhile, suggests yet another direction. It's set on an Earth where the sun's come too close, driving whites underground and leaving dark-skinned people in charge of the surface. In a bitingly funny series of "white-out" vignettes -- a family living room, an illicit lovers' tryst, a carnival freak show, a prison, a morgue -- the new interracial power struggles play out with science-fiction trappings.
But however overbooked his future, Southers inhabits the moment. Having opened the Ma Noah rehearsal by emphasizing to the cast how soon it opens, he settles into a businesslike but relaxed attitude, laughing when the actors muff lines and at his own earthy dialogue, teasing them that they're doing so well because they're showing off for a visitor. He's annoyed that one actress is still on book, but doesn't say so. Around 10 p.m., he concludes the session, telling them that three days from now he wants everyone off book for the first act. "That's doable," he says. "Y'all can do that."
There's barely been a time when Southers wasn't busy. It's a trait he's likely inherited from his father, Carl R. Southers Sr., a 40-year ALCOSAN employee who in off hours did wedding photography (using his home darkroom), woodworking, carpentry and yard work. Mark, his four brothers and little sister grew up in Schenley Heights, a leafy neighborhood on the edge of the Hill. When their dad cut down trees for cash, the boys rode along in his truck. "We had a sense of pride because we were doing something, you know, with our dad."
"My mother was a church person," he says, "and my father was the Booker T. Washington person, where we learned how to work with our hands."
By the time he was 10, Southers had met an elderly neighbor the kids knew as Mr. Mahaffey. "He'd say, â€˜Give me a minnow, baby,'" says Southers, mimicking a Southern drawl. "And you'd give him a minnow and he would cast and he would say, â€˜That's the honey hole down there.' He said, â€˜First they smell it, then they hit it, and then ooooh, you gotchu one there!'"
When Mr. Mahaffey taught them how to harvest earthworms from their holes, Southers turned entrepreneur. "I built a coffin-type box, and I filled it up with dirt and put it out behind the house. People that fished would come by the house and say, â€˜Hey, can I get a couple dozen worms off ya?' I'm like, â€˜All right.' It just grew into a business."
At Schenley High School in the '70s, Southers played varsity baseball but made his nickname with another skill his father taught him, as "Mark Minolta," the man with a camera. He shot for the school paper and yearbook; he passed on the school play. As a jock, drama was "feminine, you know what I mean? It didn't bother me, but there was too many different things to do. My father would have preferred I played baseball."
After graduating, Southers enrolled in Tuskegee Institute, where he planned to play ball and study veterinary medicine. But he didn't hack it academically. "They had a commercial that used to come on," he says. "This kid went away to college, family was cheering: Yaaay! And then he come back on the train in the rain. They were let down. And when that commercial came on my dad looked at me like, â€˜Hey that's you.'"
He ran to Detroit for a stint, working at an uncle's business, El Dorado Nate's Car Wash. Returning to Pittsburgh -- largely to coach Little League again, like his dad still did -- he joined the staff of the New Pittsburgh Courier. For most of what became a 12-year gig he was the paper's lead photographer.
Southers left the Courier when it switched to stringers in the early '90s. By that time he owned a handful of rental properties in his neighborhood, and ran a restroom-attendant service, hiring himself and a couple other employees out to night spots including Metropol and Confetti's, in Green Tree, passing out paper towels and collecting tips. But nothing full time. "It didn't look good for me not to be working," he says. "I came up in a family where everybody was always working."
A temp job in the heat and dust of U.S. Steel's Edgar Thompson plant led to a layoff, then his current gig at the Irvin Plant. But Southers didn't sit on his paycheck. He'd begun shooting stills for the venerable Kuntu Repertory Theater, and in 1992 his cousin, an actor, recruited him for Among the Best, Rob Penny's play about baseball's Negro Leagues. Southers played star Homestead Grays first baseman Buck Leonard.
"Once you're down to Kuntu, you're Kuntu for life," Southers says. Roles for New Horizon followed, as did some TV and film work and commercial modeling ("until I got my beer gut"). With theatrical mentors including Kuntu co-founders Penny and Vernell Lillie, Southers was educated in both theater and African-American culture; Kuntu, for example, was where he learned what Kwanzaa is, and Penny and Lillie instilled a belief in communicating positive social messages from the stage.
The next turn in Southers' story came in 1998. In February that year, his father died. "The week after he passed I started writing poetry," he says. "I started expressing myself by writing, which I had never done before. Never ever. It opened it up."
Doors, too, kept opening. Later that year, Southers met a University of Pittsburgh grad student named Javon Johnson while both were acting in Kuntu's Blues for an Alabama Sky. The fateful trip to Grahamstown, South Africa, with Derrick Sanders, another Pitt MFA student, followed. A month later -- after Southers' smooth telephone talk secured the three of them free airfare -- came a visit to the Edward Albee Theater Conference in Valdez, Alaska, and another inspiring rendezvous with August Wilson.
Though a decade-and-a-half his senior, Southers bonded with Johnson in particular; the two often critiqued each other's work. Still, in 1999, when Johnson and Sanders left town to pursue their theatrical fortunes, Southers stayed behind. He didn't, however, quit moving ahead. If anything, he ran harder.
Ask Southers whether his theater company gets any grant money and he quips, "U.S. Steel." But while the Black and White fest, for instance, got help from the Sprout Fund and the Multi-Cultural Arts Initiative, it's no joke. After a Monday-night Ma Noah rehearsal and a few hours sleep, Southers is up and driving his black Ford Sport Trac in pre-dawn darkness down a fogged-in, tree-lined river-valley road to the sprawling Irvin Plant, in Dravosburg. When he first rented the space he renamed Penn Theater in October 2002, he took out a home-equity loan to purchase the lighting and sound equipment from the prior tenant, fellow producer Michael Moats. But the daily expense of running the place comes out of his union wages.
Except for his deep-orange hardhat, safety goggles and work boots, Southers dresses exactly the same at the plant as he might making theater: worn, loose-fitting blue jeans and a plain gray Starter sweatshirt. And while there are obvious differences -- among them working alongside guys named Pappy, Snake and One-Eyed Joe -- the seemingly disparate parts of his life are oddly integrated.
"What are you doing today?" bellows a co-worker named Freddie, seeing Southers has a visitor. "Oh, you're playing director, I forgot. Put this in there: He's a better director than he is a truck driver!"
Southers' day job was especially pertinent when he directed Dorothy 6, James McManus' play about some steelworkers and their lonely struggle to save a Mon Valley blast furnace in the 1980s. "A lot of people would have read the dialogue between the men as insulting. He immediately recognized it as brutal blue-collar humor," says McManus. "I thought the struggle was to keep it from being too somber. He saw that it was just guys busting each other's balls out in front of the mill."
McManus had sent Southers the Dorothy 6 script cold this past January. "Usually you wait for six months to two years" for theater companies to respond to scripts, says McManus. "Six days later he called me. It was like, â€˜I read it, we're gonna do it.'...It went up in April."
Southers' entrepreneurial bent keeps PPTC productive on a shoestring: The company and its modest, 99-seat venue lost about $8,000 its first year -- that is, Southers lost it -- and broke even the second, he says. And unlike many better-funded, more established troupes, it has its own venue, and the stability and flexibility that come with it.
Moreover, his hands-on skills make him notable even in the world of small-scale theater, where multiple hats are standard headgear. At Penn Theater, Artistic Director/Stage Director/Set Builder Southers sells tickets before the show, vends snacks at intermission, and helps with set changes between scenes. Most of the behind-the-scenes work -- including help (and proofreading) from Southers' girlfriend, Neicy Readie -- is volunteer. "It's just unreal to me they can do what they do without a lot of funding from somewhere," says Janis Burley Wilson, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's vice-president of education and community outreach. Wilson was so impressed with PPTC productions going back to August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom in 2003 that this year she helped Southers stage "August in February," a series of Wilson vignettes, at Downtown's Byham Theater. Wilson says she's also secured funds to help PPTC make a proposed permanent move Downtown.
Southers' status as a relative newcomer to the theater community helps him too. "He doesn't care what other people think about what he does," says Corey Rieger, PPTC association artistic director. "He's more adventurous."
Exhibit A: the Theatre Festival in Black and White, which Southers conceived to break down racial segregation among not just people who see theater in Pittsburgh, but those who make it. The festival's one-acts are all either written by blacks and directed by whites or vice-versa. Last year's festival drew decent crowds and good reviews, and even those whose mission is to produce African-American theater admire the idea. "We live in a very polarized city, and so any attempt to bridge the gap should be embraced," says New Horizon Artistic Director Ernest McCarty.
"If I'm going to stay here, then I'm going to make opportunities better," Southers says. "This is only our second year [of the festival] -- already we're seeing playwrights with plays coming in with black characters that normally would be all white."
Indeed, while Southers earns praise for creating expanding opportunities for local black performers and directors, PPTC is unique locally in consistently mixing work by black writers and white ones. It wasn't that way initially, when the first four plays PPTC produced were by blacks. But the company is for Pittsburgh writers, and black writers were the only ones Southers knew at the time.
That's changed. What hasn't is Southers' candle-at-both-ends energy.
"If you're at the bar and your cell phone's ringing and it's 1:45 in the morning, it's guaranteed Southers," says playwright McManus. "If it's 6:45 a.m. and you haven't even got up and the cell phone's ringing, it's Southers."
"He just sort of looks at it like, â€˜I'll sleep somewhere.' He doesn't delegate," says McManus. "He loves it and he's willing to put as much time in as he needs to."
"I think he looks at [the theater] really like a factory."
Even those with the most faith in Southers wonder whether he's doing too much. "Artistically it never seems that way. He's still very focused on what he needs to do," says Rieger. But "[p]hysically and mentally, some weeks he looks like shit. And sometimes he'll get down, but not for long."
Kuntu's Lillie can't praise Southers' range highly enough: Writing, directing and acting aside, "You can give him $100 and send him to the flea market and he would come back with all kinds of treasures," she says. "Why should we try to change him?" Still, she adds, "I personally know the [financial] cost of doing black theater in the city of Pittsburgh. It's gonna cost him. It's gonna cost him dearly."
At the Irvin Works, a finishing mill where massive machines hissing with steam turn slab steel into rolls of sheet metal, Southers once did night turn, first as a janitor and later in production; when he first began writing, he'd pool his breaks and from 3-5 a.m. daily sit at an old manual typewriter in the weigh-station building, composing. A few years ago he switched to steady daylight, giving up pay incentives and overtime to make time for theater and his daughter, Ashley, now age 10, from his first marriage (he's now divorced). Southers spends his workday jumping from one machine to another: hauling a waste product called scale in a dump truck; scooping waste-oil muck with a backhoe; and driving a Mack Load Lugger, a trash-truck-sized machine with a rear-mounted hydraulic arm that snares big, battered metal bins full of rubbish off the shop floor and empties them in the on-site dump.
Basically, he's an industrial-strength garbage man. The routine nature of the work is light years from the creative spark he needs when he's at his laptop keyboard or directing (though the plant's refuse heaps do provide some good set pieces). Southers likes the job well enough but talks, ambitiously, of next steps. "I've been moving in 12-year increments," he says. "I was at the Courier for 12 years....I been at the mill now for 12 years, and I'm ready to move on to run the theater full time for 12 years."