A little gem of Pittsburgh's theater scene is the Theatre Festival in Black & White. It's Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co.'s annual showcase of one-acts, half by white playwrights and black directors, the other half vice versa. Though not every script and production shines, the fest does enough good work to advance Playwrights artistic director Mark Clayton Southers' ambitious agenda of racial desegregation for both artists and audiences.
Still, even festival-goers sometimes seem uncomfortable with racial themes, in spite of -- or perhaps because of -- the fact that they're sitting in typically integrated risers. For Southers, that's a reason not to pacify audiences, but to provoke them further. Partly inspired by August Wilson's monumental, 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle, Southers launched his own "culture-clash series" of seven plays, each exploring the relationship between African Americans and persons of contrasting ancestry.
Hoodwinked (2006) follows an elderly Jewish couple who move back to today's Hill District. Last year's James McBride concerned an African-American poet with an Irish last name whose visit surprises the old-country sponsors of an Irish poetry contest he's won.
The third entry, I Nipoti, centers on two cousins ("the nephews") who hide their elderly, ailing Sicilian uncle in a nursing home in hopes of extracting his secret pizza-sauce recipe. It's a farcical premise that turns more sober in the second act, as relationships develop between the Italian-Americans, the facility's African-American staff and an elderly black resident.
The script reflects not only some of Southers' life experience -- he and his brother own a pizza shop in the Hill District, where Southers grew up and still lives -- but also his hectic schedule. "I actually wrote the play on my iPhone" he says -- during spare moments in his job as a heavy-equipment operator at U.S. Steel's Irwin Works. Three scenes were written last summer in Italy, where he attended an international workshop for playwrights in Spoleto (and got some cultural pointers from his Italian roomie).
Moreover, the play changed course when the casting of specific actors for whom he was writing certain roles didn't pan out.
Southers enthuses about the current cast: Tony Bingham and Mark Calla, as the uneasily teamed cousins, plus Kevin Brown, Les Howard, Twanda Clark and Bob Roberts, all directed by frequent Southers collaborator Wali Jamal.
The playwright is concerned, however, that his messages about race not sound heavy-handed. That's a pitfall, he says, of playwrights who unwittingly substitute their own voices for those of their characters. So while I Nipoti does offer some racial philosophizing, Southers intends it to be "just enough that someone will walk away with two things they didn't know before." (Audiences should be apprised, however, that Southers knows that the etymologies he cites for two ethnic slurs are not definitive.)
"I'm trying to write a play so I can open up some areas for people to have a dialogue," he says.
I Nipoti Thu., March 12-March 29. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre, 542 Penn Ave., Downtown. $17.50. 412-394-3353 or www.pghplaywrights.com