Mark Clayton Southers experienced August Strindberg’s Miss Julie as translated by Irish playwright Frank McGinnis back in 2008. While attending the Dublin Theater Festival, Southers considered “troubles” of Protestant and Catholic divide as subtext in the production. He became intrigued by how the action of the popular naturalistic drama might be moved to an appropriate American setting and started writing his own version.
The concept was also intriguing to the Heinz Endowments and The Pittsburgh Foundation’s Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh program, which awarded a 2013 grant to Southers for the completion his Miss Julie, Clarissa and John. Fast forward to January 2015, St. Petersburg, Florida. The first public reading of Souther’s script took place when he directed August Wilson’s Radio Golf, his third Wilson play for American Stage Theatre Company.
A few months later, Souther’s production of Wilson’s Fences had a weekend opening at his Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company. The following Monday Mark and his wife Neicy were in a life-changing car accident in which Mark suffered extremely serious injuries. So, Mark says he regrets he didn’t get to see his Fences production develop; he was too busy fighting for his life while unconscious for weeks.
Miraculously—and we don’t use that word lightly—Mark was back at work (albeit from his hospital room) in three months. Southers’ reported with candor on his dark days and nights of physical pain and rehabilitation therapy as well as hope born from the love and care of his wife, family and friends.
In autumn 2015, PPTC colleagues carried on to open the season despite Souther’s long absence.
“Fortunately, the timing was between seasons,” Southers offers. His next PPTC production was Wilson’s The Piano Lesson on the August Wilson Center stage last November.
Now, Souther is back full force. “Inspired by Strindberg”, Miss Julie, Clarissa and John is staged by frequent PPTC director Monteze Freeland for the world premiere this weekend in PPTC’s intimate downtown space on Penn Avenue. Opening night on Sat., March 12 is sold out, but audiences will be treated to an array of talk backs that will continue to support the play’s further development. “We had to rediscover the piece after setting it aside,” says Southers, adding with his typically positive spin that “things happen for a reason.”
Southers’ script retains the year 1888 as the time setting, but he transports his version of Strindberg’s three characters to Reconstruction-era Virginia plantation. The servant Jean becomes John and Strindberg’s third and minor character, Christine or Kristin, is renamed Clarissa.
And there lies a major difference for those who know Miss Julie.
Dramaturg Kyle Bostian says: “Mark’s play makes Clarissa the heart of the play. Her character development is stronger.”
“Clarissa’s journey is completely original,”Southers says, adding that Chrysal Bates who appears in the production read the role in both workshop casts. Tami Dixon portrays Miss Julie and Kevin Brown appears as John. The dangerous attraction between the landowner’s daughter Julie and his head servant John carries over from the original. But the conflict of both class and race is further flamed by Southers’ Clarissa, a mulatto woman whose mother was a slave.
Bostian says that while “the original play is very much about social class,” layers of historical and societal realities affect the characters. “The Emphasis is also on history,” explains Bostian. “What’s changed since the Civil War? How are the characters different and where they are now? There’s also an emphasis on ‘how do we escape our history’?”
On the process, Southers says, “Playwriting is like a Rubik’s cube. You have to own it and know where to go if you change one thing as it will affect another.”
Bostian shares an example: “One of the issues that Mark and I identified is that the ages of the characters are older than the original.”
Southers says he considered the African-American experience while dismissing concern with how audiences might compare his script to the original Strindberg. “I’m not from the academic world but from the Black theater,” he says. “It’s a different play.”
Southers encourages playgoers to look forward to a brand new work. “With an open mind, I think they are going to find this play interesting–even funnier.” However, Southers knows that his story is very timely in its racial consciousness.
“This play will provoke a tremendous amount of thought about many issues,” he confirms. “We are still fighting the same history today. It’s tied up in our daily lives.”
Southers isn’t afraid of what he says may be a “cathartic and emotional” journey. After all, he knows fully what theater and life are really about.
His tenacity continues to inspire the arts and broader community in Pittsburgh and in Columbus where he is artistic director for Short North Stage’s August Wilson Festival through 2016. Southers will direct both Fences and King Hedley II there this year. And his “interrupted” PPTC production of Fences will be remounted with most of his original cast at Allegheny Community College South in June.
Miss Julie, Clarissa and John is on stage March 12-27 at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, 937 Penn Ave., Pittsburgh, 15222. Opening night on March 12 is sold out. Tickets: $20-25, with a $5 discount for students ordering online. Group details and questions at 412-687-4686. Visit the PPTC website for more information on talkbacks, dates, and tickets.