He took the scraps dealt to him by life and spun them into gold.
Marion McClinton, the Tony-nominated director, playwright and actor who died at 65 on Thanksgiving morning, flirted in his teen years with becoming a gangster. For the avid film buff, the idea had big-screen romance. But a relative who was a real gangster (and who did not live long) disabused him of that delusion and McClinton found his calling as a theater artist.
After unsuccessful stints at the University of St. Thomas and the University of Minnesota, McClinton educated himself and became a titan of the stage. Over a 15-year span, he directed August Wilson’s plays across the country to Broadway, even as he wrote plays and mentored generations of theater artists.
McClinton’s life and legacy will be celebrated March 1 at Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis.
“He was an amazing artist,” said costume designer Constanza Romero Wilson, Wilson’s widow and executor who will be among the March 1 celebrants. “He knew August from the very beginning before he became a big figure in the American theater. Marion could relate to August as a friend who, like August, had two feet planted on the ground. He knew the landscape in which August walked and where August was going.”
McClinton met Wilson in the early days at Penumbra Theatre, where, in 1982, Wilson had his first professional production, “Black Bart and the Sacred Hills.” McClinton read the role of the narrator in that drama. It was at Penumbra where McClinton and Wilson cultivated their styles, one shared by others at the venerated St. Paul playhouse.
In the Penumbra ensemble style, also called the jazz style, characters take turns, like jazz players, soloing in the spotlight in shows that married high art, musicality and black uplift to reveal the complexity, foibles and majesty of ordinary African-Americans. It also was at Penumbra where Wilson saw his favorite production of “The Piano Lesson,” directed by McClinton in 1993. After Wilson parted ways with his first director, Lloyd Richards, he called on McClinton.
“I know that it was a bumpy road moving from Lloyd to Marion, but what I noticed is that the quality of the work was sustained,” said scholar Sandra Shannon, who has written books on Wilson’s work. “In the torch being passed from one director to another, you saw that they both got the cultural nuances, the family relationship, the honor and nobility of being black, in the work.”
Rising from illness
After working with Wilson for 15 years, the partnership ended in 2004 after McClinton was diagnosed with kidney disease while directing “Gem of the Ocean” at the Huntington Theatre in Boston. He left the show, battling kidney disease the rest of his life.
“My father always fought against something to work and live,” said Jesse Mandell-McClinton.
That will to live came, in part, from his upbringing. The St. Paul-bred son of elevator operator Fred Church “Clint” McClinton and maid/kitchen help Lenora McClinton drew inspiration from his parents, especially his mother.
“My mother’s not one to take anything from anybody,” McClinton told the Star Tribune in September, his last interview. He had just returned from the hospital and was hopeful that he would be able to complete a play about her. “I had her picture along with me for this ordeal. When I was weak, I could hear her say in the morning, ‘Get up! Time to work!’ She was tough as nails but also very sweet when she wanted to be.”
His parents separated when he was 11. McClinton’s father “was a very strong man who wanted to run the house,” he said. “But nobody ran my mother. So, he told me he was leaving before she killed him or he killed her.” After that rupture, McClinton was not in touch with his father. In fact, he did not go to his dad’s funeral. “When my mother died, we were cleaning out her house and I found all these letters that he had sent but I never read. They were kind and gentle and moving. He wasn’t the man I knew at all.”
Father and mentor
Partly because of his own experience, McClinton cherished being a father to his only child, who he often took on the road with him and who grew up around luminary artists. (When he revised “Jitney,” Wilson named a new character after Mandell-McClinton.) McClinton nurtured many artists, some of whom the “Star Wars” fan considered Jedis. E.G. Bailey served as McClinton’s assistant from 2012-16, working on about a dozen productions with the director.
“To me, he was like the Yoda of directing,” Bailey said. “He would direct in ways that didn’t look like directing. He wouldn’t tell actors how to play a moment or where they were supposed to go or what they were supposed do. He would tell them a story or talk with them about their experiences.”
McClinton is best remembered for his work as a director. He was nominated for a Tony for “King Hedley II” and won an Obie for his revival of “Jitney,” a production that also won the Olivier, England’s Tony, after it moved to London. On Broadway, he also directed “Drowning Crow,” playwright Regina Taylor’s groundbreaking riff on Chekhov’s “The Seagull.”
“He was fearless,” said Taylor, noting that McClinton’s work, in concert with Wilson’s agitation, opened up American theater to diverse new artists. “I know the enormous impact of Marion’s work and legacy, and I’m so happy that he’s being honored.”
McClinton also was a gifted playwright, crafting works featuring characters that existed in many realms at once. “Police Boys,” his best-known play, is seldom produced because the language is tough. It revolves around the interrogation of a 13-year-old kid who is picked up after the murder of a female jogger. The police believe that he committed the crime as part of a gang initiation. The show, which was produced at Baltimore’s Center Stage and New York’s Public Theatre, features not just a rough-and-tumble urban landscape, but also voudon and trickster characters.
In addition to his artistic rigor across disciplines, McClinton should be remembered for his “truthful and loving representation of the black ethos,” said Penumbra Theatre founder Lou Bellamy. “He was headstrong and full of dreams.”
For a kid who grew up angling to be a tough guy or revolutionary, McClinton achieved a touch of both, but on his own terms and in a venue of his own choosing.
“When I got into theater, I sure didn’t think I would’ve had the career I had,” McClinton said. “I was happy at Penumbra. I thought that it was the best theater company in the country and that I didn’t need to go anywhere else. But August changed all that. Working with August was like working with Chekhov. He was that great.” With McClinton beside him.
The celebration will be from 3-11 p.m. March 1 at Pillsbury House Theatre, 3501 Chicago Av. S., Mpls. 612-824-0708 or pillsburyhousetheatre.org.