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Comic stage thriller explores Black life in the Old West

A Black man with a lantern looks at a Black man in a coffin.
Pittsburgh Public Theater
Brandon St. Clair (left) and Garbie Dukes star in "The Coffin Maker."

The husband, a Black coffin maker, is free. His wife is enslaved. The bounty hunter who shows up at their door — there in 1849, in the future state of Oklahoma — is white. And the body he’s hauled to their workshop is Black.

So begins “The Coffin Maker,” the latest installment in Pittsburgh-based Mark Clayton Southers’ series of plays depicting Black life in 19th-century America. If that ambitious project sounds familiar, it’s because it was inspired by fellow Hill District native August Wilson’s famed Century Cycle of plays set in the 20th century, including “Fences” and “The Piano Lesson.”

But Southers’ voice is all his own. And when this new play hits the stage starting Wed., May 29, it will be a rare instance of a locally based playwright’s work at Pittsburgh Public Theater, the city’s largest independent troupe.

A man in old-time clothes with a camera.
Pittsburgh Public Theater
Randy Kovitz (left) and Connor McCanlus onstage in "The Coffin Maker."

Southers worked on the script as a playwright in residence at the Public, a commissioned position that artistic director Marya Sea Kaminski said is awarded for “exceptional plays” still in development.

“The characters are terrific,” said Kaminski. “I feel like Mark has a true gift for plot and great story.”

The play is a Western, sure, but also something of a comedy, complete with doses of a sleeping potion. The production’s director, longtime Southers associate Monteze Freeland, calls it “a thriller.” And indeed there’s some violence, including in the harrowing stories the characters tell.

Southers says the play began with two impulses not everyone would bundle together.

“I wanted to tell a love story, but I also wanted to deal with the Middle Passage in a way that it hasn’t been dealt with before, sort of a revenge-type thing,” he said. “In our DNA, we have 400 years of oppression that affects us pretty much even in today’s world. It’s evident in all aspects of life. And I wanted to go back and look at some of the groundwork that caused that.”

The title character is Lawrence Ebitts, an aging, formerly enslaved man with a long-term plan to purchase his wife Eula’s freedom. While they’re not terribly happy, their lives get much more complicated after the abrupt arrival of bounty hunter Hollister, who wants his latest victim readied for the photograph he needs to claim his reward.

Spoiler alert: The man with the bounty on his head is only presumed dead. And the character, who is effectively nameless for most of the play, unspools a backstory that looks back to both Africa and his own bloody journey to freedom.

“See, the problem with you two is, you got too used to being someone else’s property,” the fugitive known as Dead Man tells Lawrence and Eula. “That just don’t sit right with some folks”

Dead Man is played by Brandon St. Clair, with Robin R. McGee as Eula and a trio of Pittsburgh-based actors — Garbie Dukes, Randy Kovitz and Connor McCanlus — completing the cast as, respectively, Lawrence, Hollister and the photographer Buchannon.

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Southers is the founder and artistic director of Pittsburgh Playwright Theatre Co., celebrated for producing work by local playwrights and for its productions of August Wilson plays, often with Southers — who counted the late Wilson as a mentor — directing. Southers has also directed for troupes around the country.

He’s known too for his own plays, not least “Miss Julie, Clarissa and John,” a reimagining of August Strindberg’s classic “Miss Julie” that depicts a harrowing, interracial love triangle in Reconstruction-era Virginia. That play was the first in his 10-play 19th-century cycle.

Southers said the series is mostly written, though several of the plays have yet to be produced. Others to reach the stage include the religiously infused “Savior Samuel,” about a young woman’s mysterious pregnancy and “The Bluegrass Mile,” set in the world of black jockeys in the 1890s.

“Miss Julie, Clarissa and John” has itself received productions outside Pittsburgh; both it and “Savior Samuel” were staged at The National Black Theatre Festival, in Winston-Salem, N.C.

“Coffin Maker” takes place on an appropriately rustic-looking two-level set designed by Tony Ferrieri, with costumes by Venise St. Pierre, lighting by Latrice Lovett, and sound by Bill Toles.

The show is directed by Freeland, who’s also a co-artistic director at City Theatre and a producing artistic director at Playwrights (where his comedy “Fishy Woo Woo” is, coincidentally, premiering the same week as “Coffin Maker” at the Public).

It was Freeland who, after reading an early draft of “Coffin Maker,” suggested making Dead Man, whom Southers originally envisioned as the same age as Lawrence and Eula, somewhat younger than the married couple.

“I love that this generational difference is what is at the crux of this play,” said Freeland. “Because this young man inspires these older people to find their own liberation.”

As Southers puts it, “Dead Man to me is a hero because society hasn’t beaten him down into silence.”

“The Coffin Maker” runs May 29 through June 16 at the O’Reilly Theater. More information is here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: