If Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Brother/Sister plays are long remembered in Twin Cities theater history, some of the credit will go to a producer who has remained largely behind the scenes but whose support was essential to bringing the trilogy to the Guthrie stage — and to making the Twin Cities one of just a handful of cities to host McCraney’s complete cycle.
In fall 2009, self-described theater addict Frances Wilkinson saw McCraney’s plays at New York’s Public Theater, where she is a board member. She was so taken with the dramas that she decided that she wanted audiences at home to be exposed to the playwright’s talent.
“Tarell is one of the most engaging playwrights working today,” she said. “He tackles thought-provoking subjects with poetry and lyricism.”
Wilkinson’s enthusiasm for McCraney’s plays was matched by that of Faye Price and Noel Raymond, co-leaders at Pillsbury House Theatre. With the support of the Guthrie’s Joe Dowling, Wilkinson’s Mount Curve Company teamed up with Pillsbury House to stage all three plays — “In the Red and Brown Water,” “The Brothers Size” and “Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet,” now up in a terrific production.
Marion McClinton directed all the plays here, with casts that have included such standout actors as Greta Oglesby, James A. Williams, Ansa Akyea and Nathan Barlow, who plays Marcus.
Not your typical producer
Wilkinson doesn’t fit the mold of the commercial theater producer — famously parodied by Mel Brooks — as a cynical, money-grubbing speculator. There also are philanthropic producers, essentially donors who underwrite shows at such nonprofit theaters as the Guthrie or Penumbra.
While Wilkinson has backed commercial ventures such as the Broadway production of the musical “Passing Strange” and the London revival of “Hair,” she has been most active as a nonprofit producer. Her extensive credits include the Tony Kushner festival at the Guthrie; Will Power’s “Five Fingers of Funk” at Children’s Theatre and Lisa D’Amour’s “Detroit” at Steppenwolf.
The production costs for “Marcus,” which has a cast of nine, are being split between Pillsbury House and Mount Curve.
Wilkinson, a former Guthrie board member, and her husband, Frank, a retired executive who also has served on the board of Walker Art Center, are part of a group of avid supporters of the arts and culture in the Twin Cities.
As a producer, Wilkinson is not some meddlesome check-writer. She has a keen sense of the work that she likes, and is a tireless champion of such work, said Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public.
“Frances is that very rare producer whose enthusiasm for artists does not wax or wane,” he said. “She has excellent taste, and I say that not because we tend to like the same things. She is egoless and hardworking.”
Birmingham as crucible
Wilkinson was steeped in theater, and the arts, as a child in Birmingham, Ala. She often went to shows with her parents. And her father would bring back Broadway cast albums from his business trips to New York — albums that she memorized. Wilkinson also appeared in community plays, which helped her realize that she did not want to become an actor.
“I had too much stage fright,” she said. “I thought I might want to sing because I’d taken a lot of voice lessons but I’ve always loved the written word. I love how, especially in work that’s ambiguous, you fill in the holes with your imagination. I love the intellectual side of that but also the communal experience of the theater.”
Wilkinson came of age at a time when Birmingham was ground zero of the civil rights movement. That combustible crucible deepened her love of theater, which she found to be both an escape and a window into the lives of others.
“I’m interested in how people navigate power differentials,” said Wilkinson. “It is that tension, which is twinned to other things like race and gender, that I find exciting.”
Wilkinson studied English at Randolph College in Lynchburg, Va. She spent her junior year in London.
“Frances was always passionate about Shakespeare and the contemporary plays we studied,” said Zenaida Griffin, a Birmingham-based clinical psychologist who was her roommate. “That experience fed and broadened her passion for theater, and her desire to share it.”
Wilkinson pursued advertising and publishing post-college; she had a 15-year stint in New York before moving to the Twin Cities in 1989 to open an office for Time Inc.
An intense listener
McCraney, whose accolades include a MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellowship, recently made his first trip to the Twin Cities, at Wilkinson’s invitation, to see “Marcus.” He laughed all the way through the performance and treated cast members to drinks post-show.
“In my dealings with producers, Frances is unique,” said McCraney, who last year adapted and directed a production of Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” in London and New York that was backed by Wilkinson. “She’s a great listener who doesn’t say much, but when she speaks, you’d best listen because it’s well-considered and insightful.”
“Marcus” director McClinton said that Wilkinson reminds him of Ben Mordechai, a legendary producer who backed August Wilson.
“I don’t have a lot of good things to say about producers since Ben Mordechai died,” said McClinton. “But Frances takes up that space — that good space — that Mordechai had in my life.”
“Theater is a creative collaboration that requires a lot of good angels sometimes,” he said. “Frances is one of those angels.”