Backstage Banter with Director Marion McClinton

Marion McClinton has done it all. For a long time he acted at Penumbra Theatre with buddies Lou Bellamy and James A. Williams. Then he directed, most notably being August Wilson’s right-hand man on Broadway until kidney disease forced him to move back to Minnesota. But that didn’t slow McClinton down. In fact, he tells me he’s done the best work of his life since returning home, most of it while directing shows with Pillsbury House Theater: In the Red and Brown Water, The Brothers Size.

This month, he directs Ansa Akyea as Jackie Robinson in Jackie and Me at the Children’s Theatre. The show follows a young boy whose homework assignment is to write about a famous African American. He chooses Jackie Robinson, setting in motion a whirlwind of time travel and giving him a front-row seat to a lesson in Civil Rights. I talked with Marion recently about how he approached the play, and asked him to dish on a few other things, too.

You’ve done everything from act at Penumbra to direct August Wilson’s plays on Broadway. How do the Twin Cities compare to the Big Apple?

Marion McClinton: We have such a great pool of black actors here—the best in the country, besides New York, but that’s just because of size. The quality of the acting is equal.

Most of your work is intended for more mature audiences. Do you tweak your directing style when you’re preparing a show geared toward children?

MM: You do the show. Kids are sharp. They’ve seen a ton of acting, from movies to television to the internet. They’re more sharp than we give them credit for, and I play it straight with them. I think it’s more important to put it out there straight for kids who might not get it straight at home or in regular life. To present them with stuff that’s hard—stuff that Jackie experienced. Give them the truth: they can handle it. The biggest problem is they don’t get it. Plays like this can help adjust how people think in this country.

This is a play about baseball. Are you a sports guy?

MM: I am. I love sports.

What are your top three favorites?

MM: Basketball, football, and baseball.

Favorite teams?

MM: Even though they’re going to be terrible again this year, the Twins. I used to cheer on the Lakers, but I’m not a Kobe Bryant fan so now I’m a Heat guy; I like LeBron.

Do you think people have to be sports fans to appreciate shows like Jackie and Me?

MM: Shows like this give you an idea of why people love sports. They don’t love it because they’re ignorant. Sports are doing in the 20th and 21st centuries what theater used to do in Shakespeare’s time. People go to games to feel the dramatic story of being human. Some sports are even structured like plays: two acts, four scenes (football, basketball). But baseball is the perfect game: each inning is an act, and within each act the players get a chance to redeem themselves. You don’t know what you’re gonna get until the very end.

What attracted you to this show?

MM: I came up working with Steven Dietz (the playwright) at the Playwright Center. So working with him was the main attraction. But also the content. This is the first thing I’ve done that dealt with Jackie Robinson. He was such a pivotal force in the Civil Rights movement—more than people realized. I wanted to tell his story.

It’s a powerful story, to be sure. But does it get lost in translation when being aimed toward kids?

MM: The play has some toughness to it. When you’re dealing with racial equality and inequality, you hit some tough areas. The thing I like best about Peter (Brosius, Children’s Theatre artistic director) is that he lets me be me. I naturally go after the tough areas in shows. I don’t want to disserve Jackie’s memory by not doing that. I’ve gotten into arguments with artistic directors in the past about how I approach those issues, but there’s nothing like that with Peter. I feel really good about working here.

Jackie and Me
March 12-April 14
Children’s Theatre Company
2400 Third Ave. S., Mpls.

For more on Marion McClinton’s past work and accomplishments, check out this MN Original video.