The Madison Center for the Arts brings theater to Pittsburgh’s Hill District

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“The Bluegrass Mile” is the final production of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Co.’s 20th season. That this new historical drama is written by company founder Mark Clayton Southers is fitting. That the former miller’s little inventive troupe lasted two decades is remarkable. But the production is just the latest step in Playwrights’ new phase: inhabiting the brand new Madison Center for the Arts in the Hill District, its first permanent, dedicated home.

Playwrights present works by local writers, with specialties in the plays of Southers and those of August Wilson; in 2013, it became only the third company to stage all 10 of Wilson’s acclaimed Century Cycle of plays. It has long had a reputation for achieving a lot with modest resources, and its long-running Black and White Theater Festival has done more than most projects in the city to bring black and white theater artists (and audiences) together in the same room.

The company’s earliest concerts, beginning in 2003 with Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, were staged in a rented 99-seat venue in Garfield. It later moved downtown, occupying the spaces of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust for about a decade, until last year.

Now Southers is dreaming bigger. The playwrights early seasons were funded by his work as a heavy equipment operator at US Steel’s Irwin Works. Southers left a few years ago to focus on theater and now directs concerts around the country. Last year, he cashed in his pension so he and his wife, Nacie Reedy-Souders, could purchase the former Madison Elementary School.

Southers, a lifelong Hill resident, attended the school himself, and his daughter Ashley was in the last graduating class about 17 years ago. Since February, its old hall has been the Playwrights’ full-time home. Southers envisions the rest of the sprawling three-story structure as artists’ studios, classrooms for theater arts training from lighting design to fight choreography and more, including a black box theater on the second floor.

“We know what the arts have done for us in our lives,” Southers said. He wants the center to do the same for other Hill District residents, for whom he says walking downtown can be a hassle. With Playwrights programs (and perhaps other groups) in Madison, he says, “People can just walk out the door and come see a show.”

It also plans to improve accessibility with discounted tickets.

The center joins a growing list of arts-based revitalization in the neighborhood.

The new home of the Hill Dance Academy Theater (also a former school building) is just a few blocks away on Bedford Avenue. A little further afield are the Nafasi themed arts center, the arts education nonprofit ACH Clear Pathways, and of course the August Wilson House, an arts center in whose backyard the Playwrights have memorably staged sold-out runs of several of the plays of Wilson. And in May, the Hill District Community Development Corporation began restoration of the landmark New Granada Theater.

“I think everything can work hand in hand,” Southers says.

The Madison Center for the Arts really needs work. Southers says he is seeking funding to replace the heating system and is planning a capital campaign to renovate the current lobby as a cabaret and install an elevator. It’s all going to be expensive, but don’t bet against the ever-resourceful Southerner, who is surely the only theater artistic director in Pittsburgh who runs his own tree-cutting business on the side.

The theater space was officially dedicated on October 7. It is named after Carter Woodson Redwood, a young actor who also attended Madison Elementary and got his start on stage with the Playwrights before starring in the CBS television series FBI: International.

That evening, the newly named 99-seat space hosted the debut performance of “The Bluegrass Mile,” the latest in Southers’ series of plays chronicling black American life in the 1800s. It’s about jockeys in Kentucky in 1890, when the whites threatened to push them out of this field of endeavor.

Just as the play grapples with the specter of slavery—which the young jockeys, unlike the play’s two older protagonists, never experienced—it resonates strongly today with its depictions of racialized police oppression and threats of dispossession .

Meanwhile, the notes of resilience and community that Southers sounds in his play resonate with the anticipated future of the building in which it is set.

The Bluegrass Mile runs through October 29. More information can be found here.

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