Mark Clayton Southers’ “Nine Days in the Sun” explores a world where dark skin is the desired tone after a terrorist attack pushes Earth closer to the sun. The racial balance is shifted, and the social order in America is turned upside down.
The founder of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co.’s early career effort hasn’t been staged since 2005, but a unique partnership with Indiana University of Pennsylvania brings it to audiences there this Thursday through Sunday.
The initiative involves nine students in IUP’s Theater-By-The-Grove working with five PPTCO professional actors. It’s co-directed by Jamaica Johnson from PPTCO and IUP theater faculty member Michael Schwartz. Several additional IUP students are working behind the scenes for the production.
It has been a journey for all of them. First, all the actors learned how to work together on a production after preparing separately. The students and Schwartz prepped during the week, then rehearsed on the weekends with the PPTCO co-director and actors.
The play, Johnson said, is intense, as Southers intended to “ruffle feathers.” It is also being brought to the stage after an IUP student made a racist social media post about a performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a song often referred to as the Black national anthem, before a men’s basketball game on campus on Feb. 8, the student newspaper reported.
The student who made the post is no longer enrolled at IUP, according to university spokeswoman Michelle Fryling.
The students, actors and co-directors discussed the incident and “what it brought to light for us,” according to Schwartz. What they decided to do, Johnson said, is sing the song before the play opens, “whether people like it or not.”
Part of that decision is also educational.
“People do not know the history of this anthem,” Johnson continued. “It gets lost in the title. It is about unity, peace and serenity, not ‘We need a national anthem because they have one.’ ”
‘No one spoke’
In September 2022, IUP theatre, dance and performance department chair Brian Jones organized students and faculty to present public readings of two of Southers’ plays — “Nine Days in the Sun” and “Miss Julie, Clarissa, and John” — to request input on which one should be performed at IUP. Based on feedback from attendees and the readers, “Nine Days in the Sun” was chosen.
Schwartz, who has had two plays of his produced at PPTCO in the past, said he thinks the work “provoked a more varied response from the students.”
“There is such a variety in the scenes in terms of comedy, in terms of violence, in terms of injury to the world that this play creates,” he said. “I think this really captured their imagination. It was definitely a very powerful response.”
Johnson said the initial rehearsals, which started the second week of January, between the two sets of actors were uncomfortable.
“Honestly, it was very divided for the first few weeks. The IUP actors would be on one side, PPTCO on the other,” she said. “No one spoke. We just rehearsed. We just worked through that, but we had to put that energy together.”
Beyond the hard conversations shared by the actors, it helped that they shared some meals together during the weekend rehearsals, too.
Johnson, who is 20 and from the Hill District, said she never told the students her age or what shows she has been in or led.
“My directing method — I tell the actors, ‘You know the answer. The answer is within you.’ I am not here to tell you how to be creative,” she said.
She had the students — some of whom are from rural communities — focus on breaking down each character as well, asking themselves, “How would I feel if this was me?”
Schwartz and Johnson divided up the scenes to direct.
“It was an intuitive process,” Schwartz said, adding that he has been pleased to work with such talented actors and students. “We would have production meetings and so forth. But the only time we were working together was on the weekend. Then we would put it all together … sometimes we would match, sometimes we would offer some tweaks.”
He said a number of moments in the play ordinarily he would have taken for granted.
“As a white relatively established professor in a university situation, I’m not used to having some of those assumptions challenged,” he said. “That has been a valuable experience [for me], and that is an experience the audience is going to experience one way or another.”
‘It makes all the change’
Johnson has written her own plays and other works, and she said she likes to make people uncomfortable, making them sit on the edge of their seats while they watch and listen.
“This play obviously plays into that, touching each cast member personally and seeing how this is doing a service,” she said. “If one person connects to someone and [understands] how these events may have affected another person, it makes all the change.”
She had not been familiar with the play before the initiative, but said it “was interesting and needed for the time we are in.” Johnson said, “He wrote it from a what-if standpoint, how one event changes everything in the way of life and how people interact. That was the most beautiful part of it [for me].”
After Southers selected her to co-direct the play, he said he just turned it over to her.
“She just jumped on it,” he said. “She already has great skills in dealing with people, talking about techs. I just want her to keep theater in her life.”
He hopes the play’s audience will learn from the students and PPTCO actors.
“I hope that the audience has a better appreciation for Black life,” he said. “It is as simple as that. And [I hope they] understand what privilege really is and know what it means.”
Southers had thought about bringing “Nine Days in the Sun” to PPTCO, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary, last year and then again in 2023 but decided on his “The Bluegrass Mile” instead.
Jones and Schwartz had reached out to him and offered this partnership following the 2020 murder of George Floyd, and the massive social protests that followed. Jones is quoted in a news release about the play that his department was “very public in our commitment to develop anti-racism practices,” Jones said.
“One of our objectives in our anti-racism work is to create long-lasting creative relationships with BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, persons of color) artists, including inviting them here and listening and employing their ideas of doing things differently,” he said.
Southers also sees the initiative as a way for both sets of actors to make connections and grow their networks.
He’s at IUP this week to watch the process and help as needed. It’s a break for him from working on the former Madison Elementary School in the Hill District he purchased last year — the same school he attended as a youngster — for PPTCO, where that 20th season will begin in two weeks with Ray Werner’s “Shantytown: The Ballad of Fr. James Cox.”
Both projects have an end goal for him. “Now that we have the space and classrooms, I want to make more opportunities for folks, especially for people of color, to be in charge of something and not have the stress of the outside world,” he said. “I want them to crash that glass ceiling.”
The show will be performed at IUP’s Waller Hall mainstage theater on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are available at the door or online on the Lively Arts website.
Information on PPTCO’s 20th anniversary season is online, with tickets available for the entire season.