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The World Premier of Mark Clayton Souther’s ‘The Blue Grass Mile’ at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Educates and Entertains

This drama about Black horse jockeys in the late 1800s is the latest installment in Southers’ 19th Century Collection of plays.

By MAC HOOVER

There is a line in the play The Bluegrass Mile written by Mark Clayton Southers that is haunting this writer. “Sure I wasn’t never no slave, but I knows all I needs to know ’bout it.” Clearly that is not so for all of us.

Souther’s play serves as a conduit to bring awareness to the general public about one segment of history that still reverberates in society today: The prejudices and injustices that were endured by our newly freed African-American population are still being mirrored today by cultural and economic disparities not just in the US, but globally. 

Souther’s play and direction were simultaneously a delight to watch and uncomfortable to witness; entertaining and educating us.

The play takes in a small Kentucky town, in a beautifully decorated antebellum home that is now a boarding house run by a strong woman, Rosa Lee Drew, who Chrystal Bates luminously portrays. Drew is a woman with a past that she shares in dribbles until her existence is challenged, and then she rises to confront the enemies around her.

Her constant tenant is Kermit Thomas (Charles E. Timbers Jr.), an Everyman. Thomas observes comments and, in his curmudgeonly, sometimes over-the-top way, acts as an overseeing conscience to the two younger men who come to stay at the boardinghouse for a short stay. 

Jockeys ABCD (Malic Maat) and Curtis Henshaw (Kymir Cogdell Freeman)
Collage from PPTCO

Those young men, ABCD (Malic Maat) and Curtis Henshaw (Kymir Cogdell- Freeman), are jockeys in town for the inaugural running of the Bluegrass Mile. Matt and Cogdell-Freeman offered compelling portrayals of the new kid and the veteran, both competitors and compatriots. 

The supporting cast is rounded out by William Pickford (Kevin Brown), Henrietta Cogsdale (Kendra McLaughlin), and Sheriff Tanner (David Whalen). I felt their portrayals seemed overly stylized and somewhat overacted at times. In this very intimate theater setting, subtlety might have served them better. 

The drama flows from the character’s anticipated and actual reaction of the town’s people to the two black jockeys along with Sheriff Tanners desire to take ownership of the home from Rosa.

Pre-show look at Tony Ferrieri’s set design for The Bluegrass Mile
Photo by George Hoover

One of the most interesting characters in this thought-provoking story was the set. Both clever and nuanced, Tony Ferrieri‘s design reflects the antebellum home turned boarding house’s history and its secret role in the path to freedom for enslaved people. The “reversible” portraits on the wall told their own story, further enhancing the concept of the continuing conflict between the races. The horse race itself was simple yet very effective in its design. Ferrieri ‘s talent and experience are evident upon entering the theater and amplified throughout the performance.

As mentioned, the recently named Carter Redwood Theater is a very intimate space housed in the Madison Arts Center in the Hill District; both are works in progress and labors of love, passion, and devotion by Mark Clayton Southers, his community, his family, and friends. 

The Bluegrass Mile is a thoughtful homage to where society has been. It offers quiet encouragement on how to better our collective selves. Rosa Lee Drew, the strong matriarch, learned much from her abolitionist employer and continued to live for her ancestors. The inequities of the past are not forgotten, but like the portraits, the interpretation of what is experienced depends on your point of reference. It’s a good story with some surprises. It’s wonderful when entertainment can also provide a venue for introspection. This labor of love by Mark Clayton Southers and his associates should be seen and shared. 

The Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater company is a “Gem of the Three Rivers.” Bad pun aside, don’t miss seeing The Bluegrass Mile. 

TICKETS AND DETAILS

Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company presents The Bluegrass Mile, written and directed by Mark Clayton Southers, with performances at the Madison Arts Center, 3401 Milwaukee Street from October 7th – 29th, 2023

Tickets available at: https://www.pghplaywrights.org/bluegrass-mile-tickets/

The show’s online program features more background information and cast and creativees list, bios and photos, available at: https://www.pghplaywrights.org/bgm-program/



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