Marion McClinton, Interpreter of August Wilson, Dies at 65

Marion McClinton, a noted director who was a favorite of the playwright August Wilson and took two of his plays to Broadway, earning a 2001 Tony Award nomination for best direction for the first, “King Hedley II,” died on Thursday in St. Paul, Minn. He was 65.

His son, Jesse Mandell-McClinton, said the cause was kidney failure.

Mr. McClinton, who was also an actor and playwright, did some of his most acclaimed directing Off Broadway and in regional theaters, especially in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, his home base.

“London and New York have the glamour and money,” he told The Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2007, when he was directing Samm-Art Williams’s “Home” at the Pillsbury House Theater in Minneapolis. “But when you are working on Broadway, you are as much a director as a manager solving people’s problems. Here, I get to concentrate on the art, without distractions.

“Of course,” he added, “I would be lying if I said I ain’t missing the pay.”

On Broadway, Mr. McClinton also directed Mr. Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” in 2003 and Regina Taylor’s “Drowning Crow” in 2004. His other New York productions included “Jar the Floor,” Cheryl L. West’s comic drama, which was a hit at Second Stage Theater in 1999.

“Under Marion McClinton’s direction,” Peter Marks wrote of that production in The New York Times, “it expertly locates the zing in each of Ms. West’s zingers.”

He had another Off Broadway success the next year with a remounting of Mr. Wilson’s 1982 play, “Jitney,” at Second Stage.

“Mr. Wilson, Mr. McClinton and their excellent band of actors make us feel that we have known these people — with whom we have spent only a couple of hours, after all — for most of our lives,” Ben Brantley wrote in his review in The Times.

Mr. Wilson, who died in 2005, felt that Mr. McClinton’s “Jitney” and “Jar the Floor” productions elevated Mr. McClinton to the top tier of stage directors.

“Marion had the same talent two years ago,” Mr. Wilson told The Los Angeles Times in 2000, “but turned in two fine directorial jobs in New York and came into his own.”

Marion Isaac McClinton was born on July 26, 1954, in St. Paul to Fred and Lenora (Robinson) McClinton. His father was an officer in the Marine Corps and an elevator operator, and his mother was a homemaker.

Marion grew up in the Selby-Dale section of St. Paul, a rough part of town at the time, and credited his mother with keeping an eye on him. “You didn’t take on Lenora McClinton,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 2000. “She was tenacious, indefatigable — the only person who ever scared me.”

He credited Marlon Brando with indirectly inspiring his interest in acting.

“In one weekend I saw ‘On the Waterfront,’ ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ and ‘The Wild One’ on TV,” he told The New York Times in 2001. “After having grown up watching movies with John Wayne, who was John Wayne in every movie, this Brando guy was something else. What he did was exciting, it was real.”

He dropped out of the University of Minnesota to join the newly formed Penumbra Theater, a black troupe started in St. Paul in 1976.

“Marion was an artist, and knew he was an artist before the rest of us realized we were,” James A. Williams, an actor with the group, said in a 2013 video about Mr. McClinton’s career. “When most of us were talking about basketball or talking about baseball or talking about something else, Marion would want to talk about theater.”

Mr. McClinton was both actor and director at the young company.

“It was probably the most exciting time I’ve had in the theater,” he said in the video. “I didn’t know it then, but when I look back on it, there was no time when I was as creative, working with people as creative, who were as hungry and driven as we were.”

A pivotal moment came in 1977, when Mr. Wilson, who had yet to start on his famous “Pittsburgh Cycle” of 10 plays, came to St. Paul from Pittsburgh to check out the company. In 1981 the theater gave Mr. Wilson his first professional production, a work called “Black Bart and the Sacred Hills” (Mr. McClinton played the narrator), and it nurtured other plays of his over the years.

Mr. McClinton directed his first Wilson play there, “The Piano Lesson,” in 1993. The play had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1990, and Mr. Wilson by then was known for being prickly about interpretations of his work. Mr. McClinton was out of town the night Mr. Wilson saw the Penumbra company’s “Piano Lesson.”

“I called back home and talked to Terry Bellamy” — a company member — “and said, ‘Gee, man, what did August say?’” Mr. McClinton recalled 20 years later. “He went, ‘August flipped out.’ And I think ‘flipped out’ means he hated it.”

It meant the opposite. Mr. Wilson had had considerable success with the director Lloyd Richards, but from then on he worked regularly with Mr. McClinton, who directed productions of Wilson plays all over the country. Mr. McClinton, Mr. Wilson said, helped him re-examine his own texts. With the remounting of “Jitney,” Mr. McClinton “pushed and pulled and provoked and forced me to do the necessary work on the play,” Mr. Wilson wrote in a 2000 essay in The Times.

“Frustrated and feeling boxed in by the set particulars of the play, I almost screamed at him, ‘I feel like I’m in a box!’” Mr. Wilson wrote. “His reply proved to be the liberating factor in my ability to do the rewrites: ‘It’s your box. You can break out of it any time you want.’”

Mr. McClinton directed the world premieres of “King Hedley,” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater in 1999, and Mr. Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean,” at the Goodman Theater in Chicago in 2003. By then, though, ill health had begun to intrude on his work. When he was hospitalized in August 2004, Kenny Leon took over the director’s chair for the show’s Boston run and then took the production to Broadway.

In addition to his son, Mr. McClinton is survived by his wife, Jan Mandell; a sister, Jean McClinton-Herther; and a brother, Fred.

Among those paying tribute to Mr. McClinton on Thursday was the Playwrights’ Center of Minneapolis.

“Generations and generations from now,” the center said in a statement on its website, “there will be people making theater who are doing so because of Marion, because of how generously and passionately Marion created. Because he believed Black stories belong on stages of all sizes, and told those stories with nuance and empathy.”

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