The play is one of the final installments of Mark Clayton Southers’ 19th-century play cycle.
By JAMES PAUL*
(This story has been updated by the writer.)
Mark Clayton Southers, the founder and Executive Director of the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, embarked on a journey eight years ago following a devastating car crash. His goal: write and produce one play for each decade of the 1800s chronicling the Black experience.
That goal is almost complete.
The Bluegrass Mile tells the story of two black jockeys racing in Louisville, Ky., in 1899 — not four decades since slavery ended. When a horse goes missing, the two athletes are swiftly blamed. With the law chomping at their heels, they flee to a boarding house that used to be a pumping artery for the underground railroad, where they revert to old techniques to try and make their escape.
The cast includes Chrystal Bates (Rosa Lee Drew), Charles E. Timbers Jr. (Kermit Thomas), Malic Maat (Abcd), Kevin Brown (William Pickford), Kymir Cogdell-Freeman (Curtis Henshaw), David Whalen (Sherriff Tanner) and Kendra McLaughlin (Henrietta Cogsdale). Maat and Whalen are members of the Actors Equity Association.
The play is the eighth installment in Southers’ 19th-century cycle, which he says is inspired by August Wilson’s 20th-century cycle. Southers says he says he is paying homage to the famed Pittsburgh -playwright by telling “Black stories” in the previous century.
“August has been a history teacher for a lot of people around the world,” Southers says. “For the common man sees himself in August’s place. It doesn’t matter what your background is, what country you’re from, he represents the common man, their struggles.”
Southers befriended Wilson in 1998 at a theater festival in Makhanda, South Africa, when it was still called Grahamstown. Both Pittsburgh natives, Southers and Wilson, met briefly before stateside, but Southers says seeing and learning from Wilson at the festival was a “bump in my universe.”
“It’s not like he’s an overnight success, you know, he grinded it out,” Southers says about Wilson. “He was the definition of a playwright, someone who shapes and molds things. He would write, take notes and craft his work. That’s what I admire most about him.”
Southers was in a car crash in 2015 that left him in a coma and mangled his left leg. He says writing the cycle gave him something to keep busy and helped ward off depression during his recovery.
With two more plays in the cycle to go, Southers says he’s happy that he’s leaving something behind for his kids and, like Wilson, creating a body of work that will honor the Black history that is so often glossed over.
“You grow up, and took me a while to let this go, but you grew up thinking ‘Oh man, the world’s gonna be a great place one day,'” Southers says. “It’s you. You have to make it great. You’ve got to find what’s great for you.”
TICKETS AND DETAILS
Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company‘s production of The Bluegrass Mile, Directed by Mark Clayton Southers, has performances at the Madison Arts Center at 3401 Milwaukee St. in the Upper Hill District, with a preview performance on October 6th and continuing through October 29th, 2023
Cast photos and tickets are available online, at https://www.pghplaywrights.org/bluegrass/
*James Paul is an intern at the Pittsburgh Media Partnership, of which onStage Pittsburgh is a member.