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.”
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.
“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.
“Marion’s national reputation was that of a powerhouse, as one of our nation’s most accomplished artists,” said Bill Rauch, artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
“Mockingbird” was complicated, because it is “one of the most famous stories of racial injustice that was written by and told from the perspective of white people,” Rauch said. “He handled those complications with great humor, and a directness that was sometimes startling and always heartfelt and refreshing.”
The middle child of an elevator operator father who also operated a gambling boat on the St. Croix River, and a mother who took in foster children, McClinton grew up in St. Paul, not expecting to make it out of his 20s.
“Between drugs, violence and the police, not many of us did,” he said. His loving parents scrimped, and his father saved the proceeds from that gambling boat, so that they could send their children to Catholic school.
After graduation, McClinton enrolled at the University of St. Thomas. He left after his freshman year because, he recalled, they had a faux-slave day, where a person would be auctioned and become someone’s captive for a spell. The practice, he said, was “deeply offensive.”
McClinton transferred to the University of Minnesota, but did not complete his degree. He was unfocused, he said, and enjoyed drinking and partying too much.
Marlon Brando changed some of that. “I remember once they had a Brando marathon on, and I was like, man, that’s the real [talent],” he said. “Brando became a different person for each film. I wanted to do that.”
McClinton dreamed about Hollywood. “I wanted to go out there, but I had no money,” he said. When he saw a legendary production of “The Great White Hope” starring Ernie Hudson at Theatre in the Round in 1975, McClinton knew that his dreams could flower at home.
“It showed me the power of theater,” he said. “It was a game-changer.”
A second chance
That “Great White Hope” changed things on the Twin Cities theater scene. It’s credited with paving the way for the creation of Mixed Blood Theatre. Lou Bellamy directed the first show at Mixed Blood before going on to found Penumbra.
“I owe so much to Penumbra,” said McClinton. “All the ensemble work I do, all the stuff I’ve done, that place has been the sanctuary. It’s where I learned the things that I’ve done everywhere. It’s where I became a man.”
That McClinton was hired by Penumbra in the first place was itself an opportunity for redemption. In his 20s, McClinton was, by his own admission, a heavy drinker. (He has been sober for nearly 30 years.) He got a part in a play at a local theater but missed the final preview when he overslept after a big night of carousing. He was fired.
McClinton asked Bellamy for a chance to join his new company. Bellamy said yes. “In those days, Marion was always getting arrested, not because he did anything, but because he fit the profile of a young black man,” Bellamy recalled. “I remember one time they put Marion in a lineup and asked him to say, ‘Gimme that purse, bitch!’ He wouldn’t do it.”
Penumbra gave McClinton a chance to read plays and act. He also ran props and worked backstage.
“Like all of us energized, exercised and sometimes angry young men who wanted justice and a fair chance in this society, theater — and specifically, literature from the Black Arts Movement — gave us a compass into manhood,” said Bellamy. “The society was telling us one thing, but this literature connected us to a history of great thinking and to a future.”
At Penumbra, McClinton hung out with actors James A. Williams and Terry Bellamy. The three were sparring partners who dreamed of conquering the world. “We used to go to Dixie’s bar in St. Paul and plot what we were going to do,” McClinton said. “We were like Scorsese and those guys.”
Williams and another actor, Russell Curry, would do this thing called “Dueling Brandos,” said Williams. “It was a popular ‘SNL’ skit at the time between Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. Marion’s always been one of the more brilliant writers, actors and directors around. He was always putting his dream casts in his head.”
While first an actor at Penumbra, McClinton also grew into a playwright. He won a new-play competition at the St. Paul playhouse early on, and his own plays, including “Walkers” and “Police Boys,” were the ones that first took him and his Twin Cities colleagues to New York.
‘He sees things in you’
Later, after his experiences on Broadway, McClinton has served as a resource for other Twin Cities-based talent.
“When I got my first Broadway job, Marion reviewed my contract,” Williams said.
McClinton cast actor Regina Marie Williams in “Othello,” her first Shakespeare play.
“He sees things in you, in your talent, that sometimes not even you see,” she said. “He’s a director you would run through a wall for.”
“He has this way of humanizing the material, making it visceral and actable,” said Tracie Thoms, a regular on TV’s “Cold Case,” who made her Broadway debut in “Drowning Crow,” directed by McClinton. “His approach to the story, and to life, is not technical. It’s about the soul of the character, the person.”
McClinton is still in rebuilding mode, but he has a glow about him these days.
“People in the industry have this false idea that concerns about his health hold him back,” said Mandell-McClinton, describing his father’s determination and work ethic. “But he’s always fought his body to do his work. My dad never quits.”
Playwright, director and producer Carlyle Brown, who has known McClinton for about 30 years, said that he comes fully alive in theater.
“It’s like he somehow wills excellence,” said. “People sometimes get worried for him. Is he going to take his medication? Is he going to be all right? But then you get to opening night, and you are blown away. The work — theater — heals him.”
McClinton sees the body as a vessel for something larger, call it artistic transcendence, health concerns be damned.
“I broke my ankle when I was doing ‘In the Red and Brown Water,’ ” he said of a celebrated production that launched the McCraney trilogy. “If I need to break something every time I do a play to get the same result, I’d take that bet.”