Theatre is not only a profession for playwright, actor and director Marion Isaac McClinton–he readily acknowledges that it saved his life. “It kept me sane,” he says. “It kept me focused. It was something I could look at and say it was positive.” This Minneapolis-based artist, a former drug user and alcoholic who dropped out of high school to experiment with life, relaxes while sipping tea and reminisces about days when things did not look so promising. “One night after a wild excursion, I concluded I had to do something quick or I’d be dead before I was 25.”
That “something” came about by chance the next day when he answered a newspaper ad, auditioned for The River Niger and got the part of Chips. That began his commitment to the theatre, which ultimately gave him the impetus to put his life back together.
The eyes have it
McClinton–an imposing figure, standing over six feet with broad shoulders–has a serendipitous temperament, a robust laugh and a booming voice well suited to the stage. His animated face is ideal for a gamut of roles, but his eyes tell the intimate story of his life: they reveal passion, troubled times, conviction and an innate wisdom beyond his 38 years.
Despite his fortuitous start in the theatre, there was nothing impulsive in McClinton’s desire to act. He vividly recalls being enthralled by movies starring Marlon Brando and Sidney Poitier as an adolescent, and acting out roles to amuse friends and family members.
But McClinton did not hit his stride as an actor until he was invited to become a member of St. Paul’s Penumbra Theatre Company. “Something very special happened in the late ’70s in the Twin Cities,” he says. “You can call it a harmonic convergence. We had found something new and were discovering something inside ourselves–and it was exciting and challenging and we stayed with it through the highs and lows. There were years when we worked for free–sometimes 14 hours a day, overcoming unbearable obstacles. There are a lot of actors, designers and directors who left blood on that stage from smashing their thumbs.”
McClinton spent years expanding and honing his craft as a journeyman actor, literally accepting any role that came his way. “Marion’s acting, like all good art, is created out of special circumstances,” reflects Penumbra artistic director Lou Bellamy, who has steered McClinton through scores of productions. “He goes for the physical rather than the verbal gymnastics. He looks for the physicality in his choice; and he instinctively spots the rhythms, nuances and gestures that reveal those physical qualities.”
It was when he turned to directing that McClinton quickly learned the danger involved in diving into deep water without knowing how to swim. “I secured the rights to this play, I won the battle to direct it, but when I started to study the play it didn’t make sense,” he recalls. “That’s when I realized what I was dealing with in Waiting for Godot. I looked at the cast and they looked at me, and I thought, ‘What the hell did I get myself into?’ Then one day we were doing Lucky’s speech and the music clicked. I realized everything about the speech fit the African-American experience. And that was my foundation.”
Big whopping lies
After years of dividing his time between acting and directing, McClinton decided to try on yet another hat for size. “I was getting older and began to realize that I had something particular I wanted to say,” McClinton notes. Influenced by friend and neighbor August Wilson, McClinton penned Walkers–a taut drama that explores racism and its negative effects when a policeman goes berserk and kills his wife and children–which earned him a 1989 Off-Broadway production at the now-defunct Hudson Guild Theatre. More recently, his Police Boys, a penetrating drama of urban gang violence, garnered critical kudos and enthusiastic audiences at Baltimore’s Center Stage–and an invitation to serve as the theatre’s playwright-in-residence, a project to be supported over the next two years by a major grant from the National Theatre Artist Residency Program funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and administered by Theatre Communications Group.
During the residency, McClinton will focus on developing a new play, The Authentic Story and Most Original Adventures of the One and Only Hannibal Jim as Told to Samuel Clemens, an epic retelling of Huckleberry Finn which the playwright describes as a “fantastic adventure which includes famous people from history, folktale legends sprung to life, horrifying mystical encounters with the dreaded Night Riders, and big whopping lies that explain the truth and who owns it.”
Grateful to have survived beyond his 25th birthday, McClinton now reaps the benefits of his years of labor. Although he says he would like nothing more than to spend more time with his wife and three-year-old son, taking time off in the near future seems unlikely. He is slated to direct three plays this year, and two of his own works (Hunters of the Soul at Pillsbury House Theatre and Enlightenments on an Enchanted Island at the Illusion Theater) will be presented in Minneapolis this summer.
When we spoke McClinton was preparing for his next directing venture, Borders of Loyalty by Michael Henry Brown, an incendiary exploration of racism and anger which was set to open at Maine’s Portland Stage Company in March. “You see, I have to hear some kind of music that connects me to the script,” he ventures. “Music is very spiritual–it connects me emotionally. When you work on a script of Michael’s you must be prepared–there is no half-stepping. I haven’t heard the music yet because Michael is thinking of changing the ending and, if he does, it might change the tone. But when I hear that music, then I know I’m onto something.”