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Not an Assignment, an Honor

To Marion McClinton, directing the new August Wilson play means protecting a legacy.

September 10, 2000|ELAINE DUTKA | Elaine Dutka is a Times staff writer

Marion McClinton still recalls seeing his first August Wilson play, "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," in the mid-1980s. A blend of reality and magic realism, he says, it pushed the envelope of what theater could be.

"The play 'rearranged the molecules.' You came in one way and left feeling different," McClinton recalls. "Though I've directed August's 'Seven Guitars,' 'Two Trains Running,' 'Fences,' 'The Piano Lesson' and 'Jitney' since then, I consider 'King Hedley II' to be his next big push. It's operatic, Greek in size and structure. He's wrestling with something huge this time."

The eighth in Wilson's cycle of plays chronicling the African American experience through each decade of the 20th century, "King Hedley II" is set in 1985 in Pittsburgh's crime-infested Hill District. The story deals with a struggling ex-con (Harry Lennix) at war with his past and his present--zeroing in on relationships with his second wife (Mone Walton), his mother (Juanita Jennings), her ex-lover (Charles Brown) and friends (Monte Russell, Lou Myers).

Laced with dark humor and messianic prophecies, "Hedley" tackles major philosophical issues: the "greed is good" ethic, the demise of the extended family, what it means to kill someone, and the possibility of new beginnings.

"The play is about redemption, rebirth, reclaiming the traditions of our ancestors," the 46-year-old director says, catching some rare quiet time in a Taper rehearsal room.

A finalist in the 1999 Pulitzer Prize competition, "Hedley" opens at the Mark Taper Forum on Thursday and is scheduled to open on Broadway in the spring at a theater to be announced. This is the first time McClinton is going the distance with a Wilson play. Previous Broadway productions were directed by former Yale Repertory Theater artistic director Lloyd Richards.

"I consider August one of the three most important American playwrights, along with Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill," says McClinton, who has seven original plays to his credit. "When it's your watch, you have to safeguard that legacy. I don't feel intimidated by that prospect, but I do take it very seriously."

McClinton's latest assignment comes on the heels of a year in which he was on a roll. The Twin Cities native directed the critically acclaimed revival of "Jitney"--a reworking of Wilson's 1982 play that McClinton refers to as "the little engine that could." "Jitney" was presented at the Taper and New York's Second Stage, where McClinton also directed the surprise hit "Jar the Floor"--a tale of four generations of black women.

"Marion had the same talent two years ago," Wilson says, "but turned in two fine directorial jobs in New York and came into his own."

Having worked at such prestige venues as the Joseph Papp Public Theater, Chicago's Goodman Theatre, the La Jolla Playhouse and Baltimore's Center Stage, McClinton is frequently referred to as one of the country's leading black directors.

"That label doesn't bother me," he says with a smile. "I'm up there in very good company. My mom is black. I don't view myself as a second-class citizen. And I want people to know who I am."


McClinton grew up in Selby-Dole, a "tough but beautiful" section of St. Paul, Minn., that acquainted him with life's underbelly. His parents divorced when he was 13, but a strong mother kept him in tow.

"You didn't take on Lenora McClinton," he says. "She was tenacious, indefatigable--the only person who ever scared me."

He was a sickly youth, suffering from debilitating asthma. Movies--particularly those starring Marlon Brando--became an escape. He'd watch "On the Waterfront" or "A Streetcar Named Desire" and would stop wheezing by the end. When he was in eighth grade, McClinton saw a live production of "Julius Caesar" at the Guthrie Theater--his first play other than a road show of "Funny Girl." After that, theater became a passion ("like church, a powerful communal experience"). Still, making movies was his ultimate goal--acting, directing and writing, a la Orson Welles.

For a decade beginning in the early 1970s, McClinton worked with antisocial public school students by day and acted at night. In 1976, he auditioned for Joseph A. Walker's "The River Niger" at Minneapolis' Theatre in the Round. Landing that part, he says in hindsight, probably saved his life.

"I was drinking heavily, experimenting with assorted things. I was lucky I didn't get myself into trouble or killed," he says. " 'Niger' turned things around for me. I became part of a world in which I was accepted."

In many ways, acting is more satisfying for McClinton than writing or directing.

"The lights go out, and it's just you and the audience," he says. "Writing is so private. And while directing pays the bills, it's hard being the captain of the ship--particularly when the waters are rough."

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