“The Bluegrass Mile” is slated to run at the Madison Arts Center at 3401 Milwaukee St. in the Upper Hill District from Oct. 7 – 29. Tickets are available online.
Mark Clayton Southers, founder and executive director of the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, embarked on the 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 Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre will cap off its bustling 20th season this month with the world premiere of “The Bluegrass Mile,” one of the final installments of Southers’ 19th-century play cycle. The play is slated to run at the Madison Arts Center in the Upper Hill District.
“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 at their heels, they flee to a boarding house that used to be an artery for the underground railroad, where they return to old techniques to try and make their escape.
The play is the eighth installment in Southers’ 19th-century cycle, which he says is inspired by August Wilson’s own 20th-century cycle. Southers says he’s paying to the famed Pittsburgh -playwright by telling Black stories in the century prior.
“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 — back when it was still called Grahamstown. Both Pittsburgh natives, Southers and Wilson met briefly before, 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 injured in a car crash in 2015 which 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.”
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.
Tickets and Details
Show times and tickets can be viewed online. The Madison Arts Center, at 3401 Milwaukee Street, will launch a preview of the play on Oct. 6. The run of the play is Oct 7-29.
Artwork by Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company
James Paul is a student at the University of Pittsburgh serving as one of two Pittsburgh Media Partnership interns this semester. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story has been updated to correct a quotation.