Marion McClinton: A man made by theater

  • Article by: ROHAN PRESTON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 9, 2014 - 3:48 PM

Marion McClinton grew up in St. Paul, dropped out of college, educated himself and became a powerhouse in American theater.

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Director Marion McClinton was in a Boston hospital bed when playwright August Wilson came to see him. It was September 2004.

McClinton had been Wilson’s go-to director for more than a decade. Two years earlier, he had staged the world premiere of Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean” at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. Now the drama was in rehearsals at the Huntington in Boston before its transfer to Broadway.

Wilson was gentle but direct with his friend of 25-plus years.

“He said that he had called Kenny,” McClinton said. That would be stage director Kenny Leon, who was replacing McClinton as director.

“August told me to take care of myself, my health. He cried. I cried. We cried some more,” McClinton recalled. “But I understood it and knew the importance, not only of this production, but of his entire play cycle. That’s what he had to do.”

The lifts and turns of fortune’s wheel are unpredictable. Wilson died a year later. Leon’s career took off, hitting a peak in his recent Tony win for the Broadway revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” which starred Denzel Washington.

McClinton, diagnosed with kidney disease, went home to St. Paul to focus on his health after years traveling as an award-winning director who specialized in Wilson’s extraordinary plays about black life in 20th-century America.

He began spending more time at home with his wife, theater teacher Jan Mandell, and son, Jesse Mandell-McClinton.

“My first memories of my family were of my dad on the road,” said Mandell-McClinton, 24, an aspiring writer in Austin, Texas. “I got to see the country and the world through his work. And he was happiest, most fulfilled that way. I was mad when they let him go.”

Battling depression

McClinton’s return was an ominous time. For the first two weeks, his son recalled, his father would lie for long stretches on the basement floor in their house near St. Paul’s Merriam Park. The depression eventually lifted.

“That’s how my family works,” said Mandell-McClinton. “My dad has this amazing capacity to be outside of himself, and to arrive at what he needs to do to take care of himself.”

McClinton’s regimen for the kidney disease that had caused acute pain intermittently for years included dialysis three times per week. As he adjusted to the treatment of his body, McClinton said, his mind and creative powers grew.

Regaining his confidence, he began directing again — gemlike productions that ranged from new plays to Shakespeare. The man described by Peter Brosius of Children’s Theatre as “one of the greats of American theater” had proved himself at home and abroad. He was nominated for a Tony for Wilson’s “King Hedley II,” and he won an Obie for “Jitney,” a production McClinton took to London, where it won an Olivier Award.

Now, his hometown would get to see more of his celebrated artistry. McClinton staged works on Twin Cities stages such as Pillsbury House, Park Square, Children’s Theatre and the Guthrie.

Soft-spoken, ruminative

“Theater for me is not about playing, but about life,” said McClinton. He speaks in a raspy baritone with wheezing around the edges, a result of the asthma he’s had since childhood. McClinton, 60, is fond of baseball caps that hide his all-gray hair. Even though he has lost 30 pounds in the past few months, he has the frame of someone you might peg for a ballplayer. An avid sports fan, McClinton’s deepest passion always was for the dramatic arts.

He also felt confident enough to go back on the road, working at major regional playhouses in Ohio and Oregon, where he directed “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a production that sold out before opening night.

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