Playwright Mark Clayton Southers crosses time and genres in The Coffin Maker | Pittsburgh City Paper

Playwright Mark Clayton Southers crosses time and genres in The Coffin Maker

click to enlarge Playwright Mark Clayton Southers crosses time and genres in The Coffin Maker (4)
Image: Courtesy of Pittsburgh Public Theater
Scene from The Coffin Maker

Art may not always imitate life, but life almost always inspires art in some way. Case in point: playwright/producer Mark Clayton Southers was inspired to write his new play The Coffin Maker for his dear friend, veteran Broadway actor Anthony Chisholm, who always wanted to do a western. Southers planned to cast Chisholm in the lead role.

"A lot of times I write with actors I know in mind for roles because I know their voice, I know their mannerisms. And it helps to elevate the story, helps to move the story along, helps me to make connections," Southers tells Pittsburgh City Paper. The role of the photographer named Buchannon was crafted specifically for actor Connor McCandless, bringing a unique authenticity to the character. Sadly, Chisholm wouldn't get a chance to take on the titular role of the coffin maker; he passed away in 2020.

The Coffin Maker is not just any play; it's a rich tapestry of history, humor, and raw storytelling. Set in 1849 Oklahoma, the play transports audiences back in time, capturing the essence of the era through meticulous attention to detail in dialogue, costumes, and set design. We follow Lawrence Ebitts (Garbie Dukes), the coffin maker, who is also a free formerly enslaved man. He and his wife, Eula (Robin R. McGee), live a quiet life preparing bodies for burial. One day, a bounty hunter and the fugitive he's tracking enter into their world, disrupting the peaceful existence the couple has created.

click to enlarge Playwright Mark Clayton Southers crosses time and genres in The Coffin Maker
Image: Courtesy of Pittsburgh Public Theater
Scene from The Coffin Maker
Although the play is described as a violent and bloody western-revenge-comedy, Southers insists that the bloody bits occur off stage. Careful not to give any plot twists away, Southers says, "The violence is in the stories that are being told about the middle passage [the forced voyage of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World] and revenge, things like that. I'm trying to transport our audience back to these times. I never wrote it as a comedy, but there are a lot of comedic elements in it. I just think that naturally, that happens in life, naturally, things we find funny."

Despite having produced over 160 full-length plays and being mentored by the legendary Pittsburgh playwright August Wilson, Southers stays humble, giving much of the play's credit to his cast and crew. The playwright expresses immense gratitude for the team, highlighting how each member's expertise contributes to the production's overall success — starting with City Theater Co-Artistic Director Montez Freeland, who directed the play. Southers says Montez was an easy choice as his director, whose ambitious vision brings the play to life. "He knows what he's doing. He's shown it over and over. He's a very talented person, and we're lucky to have him in the city, even though he's from Baltimore," Southers jokes.
click to enlarge Playwright Mark Clayton Southers crosses time and genres in The Coffin Maker (2)
Image: Courtesy of Pittsburgh Public Theater
Scene from The Coffin Maker
Having immense trust in Freeland's artistic vision, Southers mostly "stayed out of it" when it came to the casting process. Southers says, "It's the director's vision for the piece, so, I yield to the director for just about anything and everything. He's the one who's going to be working innately with these actors."

Still, Southers was in the room when actor Randy Kovitz read for the role of the bounty hunter, Evan Wainwright Hollister, and recalls Kovitz "taking" the role for himself. Southers has worked with Kovitz many times in the past, but this time, he was almost unrecognizable. "He came in, and we didn't even know it was him," Southers recalls, "He totally transformed and was so creepy, and it blew me away." Scenic designer Tony Ferrari, who is working with the Pittsburgh Public Theater for the first time, is also included in this collaborative effort.

Wilson's encouragement played a pivotal role in Southers' career, encouraging him to write for the stage and pursue his passion for storytelling. As we discuss the importance of telling Black stories on stage, the playwright emphasizes that The Coffin Maker addresses issues that still resonate today. The play delves into themes of oppression and legacy, making it a powerful and relevant piece for contemporary audiences. "It's going to be unlike something that you've ever seen before on stage. It's addressing issues that still affect us today with all the oppression that's been compounded into our DNA and things that we still have to deal with in certain environments. In a brutal way," Southers says.
click to enlarge Playwright Mark Clayton Southers crosses time and genres in The Coffin Maker (3)
Image: Courtesy of Pittsburgh Public Theater
Scene from The Coffin Maker
The Coffin Maker is part of Southers' 19th Century Cycle. He was inspired by August Wilson's American Century Cycle, where 10 of his plays represent a different decade in the 20th century. Sounders — who’s also the founder of the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Company — decided his plays would follow a similar pattern. "I said, well, I think I'm gonna do this as well, but I'll make mine for the 19th century. So, all my plays take place in the 1800s. I've written eight so far. I still have two to finish writing. It gives me something to work toward," Southers remarks. It seems like an ambitious goal, but if anyone can accomplish it, Southers, who was recently named one of American Theater Magazine's Spring 2024 'People to Watch,' is the playwright for the job.

The Coffin Maker opened on June 1 and runs until June 16 at The O'Reilly Theater. With its blend of comedy, history, and poignant storytelling, this production promises to be a memorable addition to the theater world and Souther's newfound legacy.

The Coffin Maker. Showtimes vary. Continues through Sun., June 16. O'Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Downtown. $35-88. ppt.org

Correction: A previous version of this story indicated that the character of Lawrence Ebbits killed his enslaver. It was in fact the character of The Deadman who did so. We regret the error.