Mark Clayton Southers owes much of the inspiration for his theater career to an unimpeachable source: August Wilson. It was listening to the Pittsburgh-born Pulitzer Prize winner lecture in South Africa in 1998 that led Southers – then a thirtysomething steel-mill worker and stage actor – to try his hand at writing.
A few years later, Southers had transformed himself into a prize-winning playwright with his own troupe, Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co., which was known for staging arguably the best productions of Wilson’s plays in town. He created the Theatre Festival in Black and White, a long-running initiative to bridge the racial divide on local stages. And as a director, Southers has even made a name at companies in other cities, especially for directing Wilson classics like “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “Fences.”
Now, Southers has taken the first steps toward his most ambitious project inspired by Wilson yet: His own version of Wilson’s epochal Century Cycle of plays depicting African-American life in each decade of the 20th century. Southers decided to create his own cycle, all set in the 1800s. His first step was 2016’s critically acclaimed “Miss Julie, Clarissa and John," which went on to productions in Louisville, Ky., and overseas at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, in Scotland. The second is “Savior Samuel.”
The new play follows an ensemble of black characters on the Midwestern frontier: Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas. The story begins in 1877, when husband and wife Benjamin and Virginia Clayson, already living a hardscrabble life, are shocked to learn their teenage daughter, Essie, is pregnant. Essie is deaf and the baby’s father is a mystery. The play, which has strong religious overtones, revolves around how the baby, named Samuel, affects those around him. The action eventually moves eastward, to a Catholic orphanage for Native American boys in Pennsylvania.
Southers wrote the first draft of “Savior Samuel” in 2002, and set it aside. (In the intervening years, Southers’ challenges included his ongoing recovery from a horrific 2015 car accident.)
Pittsburgh Playwrights artistic associate Monteze Freeland encouraged Southers to revisit “Savior Samuel”; with Freeland directing, it opens Feb. 8. As is common with new plays, in late January, Southers was still revising the script. But at its core, says Freeland, it’s still “about people who are broken who become fixed, and what happens the day after you receive everything you really wanted.”
“Savior Samuel,” like Southers’ 19th-century cycle as a whole, is meant to get audiences thinking differently about American history: about what African Americans did in the 1800s aside from being enslaved, for instance, and about the fact that non-native people on the frontier weren’t all Europeans. In “Savior Samuel,” most of Southers’ black characters are freed slaves now living with wolves lurking outside the door, and in uneasy proximity to Native Americans.
“I thought about the American South. And I thought about all the untold stories, and different ways to tell stories, and add some type of historical elements to them,” says Southers. “That’s what’s exciting to me as far as doing this cycle. Unearthing the things we don’t see, or we only see glimpses of. We don’t see in-depth studies of it.”
“Miss Julie, Clarissa and John” was a thorough rewrite of August Strindberg’s classic “Miss Julie.” Set it on a plantation in 1880s Virginia, it explored the dynamics between freed slaves and the former slave-owners they still worked for. The milieu of “Savior Samuel” is even tougher. At a rehearsal one night in late January, at Playwrights’ space in the Hill District, one actor delivers a monologue about killing a man in self-defense. Another confesses to a years-long deception of his wife that he deeply regrets.
The character of Benjamin, who is Samuel’s grandfather, makes his living as a hunter, trapper and moonshiner. As “Savior Samuel” opens, Benjamin has lost the use of one arm in a wolf attack, and he’s shortly forced to make a wrenching decision about his newborn grandson. “Is [Benjamin] going to have redemption?” asks actor Wali Jamal. “That’s what the ultimate goal is, his redemption.”
The cast also includes such fellow frequent Playwrights collaborators as Cheryl El-Walker (as Virginia), Jonathan Berry, Sam Lothard and Susan McGregor-Laine, along with Dominique Briggs and Marsha Mayhak.
The production is notable in another way. The role of Essie, the deaf teenager who gives birth to Samuel, is played by Aaliyah Sanders, a Scranton native and sophomore at the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. To help out, the troupe hired Catherine Morgan, an interpreter who formerly taught at the school.
Casting a deaf performer requires some adjustments. At that late-January rehearsal, Sanders and Morgan discussed with Southers and Freeland how Essie’s deafness should be portrayed.
People in the deaf community, Morgan emphasizes, don’t see deafness as a disability. Rather, they consider deaf culture a community. “It’s the only place where you don't have to try to communicate a different way,” she says. “Where people can understand you, plus they understand the things you have to deal with in life.”
To Southers and Freeland, the exchange is all part of a play that is highlighting, and perhaps upending received notions, about more than one marginalized community.
“Every day is a learning experience for us,” says Freeland.
Unlike most Playwrights productions, “Savior Samuel” won’t be staged at its home theater Downtown. Instead, it will be performed down the street at the Trust Arts Education Center, a black-box space at 805 Liberty Ave.
The show runs for five weeks. Ticket information is here.