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Double Take: Monteze Freeland Directs Pittsburgh Public’s ‘The Coffin Maker,’ While His Own Play Debuts a Few Miles Away

By SHARON EBERSON

In theatrical leadership, influence and inspiration, few can match the output and goodwill spread throughout Pittsburgh by Mark Clayton Southers and Monteze Freeland

This coming weekend alone proves the point. 

Monteze Freeland (Image: Sharon Eberson)

Freeland will direct the premiere production of Southers’ The Coffin Maker, for Pittsburgh Public Theater’s season finale, at the O’Reilly Theater, Downtown. At the same time, Freeland’s own work, Fishy Woo Woo, makes its debut at Playwrights’ Upper Hill District venue, the Madison Arts Center.

Both men are multihyphenates, including as playwrights, directors and performers. These days, despite front-office roles that would seem to put them in competition with one another – Southers is founder and producing artistic director of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, and Freeland is the co-artistic director of City Theatre – their creative partnership remains stronger than ever. 

At City, Freeland’s most recent directing credit was the jubilant production of Fat Ham that went on to Arkansas’ TheatreSquared, through May 12.

Back home in Pittsburgh, a May day for Freeland might be a morning meeting at City Theatre on the South Side, rehearsals for Pittsburgh Public, Downtown, then checking in on his Playwrights show. 

It sounds exhausting.

“Everyone says that. I say, it’s just one month,” says Freeland. And besides, those long days also “are some good days, for sure.”

The partnership between Freeland and Southers goes back to the days when Playwrights performed in a 75-seat theater, with an entrance via the Sixth and Penn garage, Downtown. Bill Nunn (the late Pittsburgher and Do the Right Thing actor) took a group from Point Park University, where Freeland was a student, to see Southers’ production of August Wilson’s Two Trains Running

In 2011, Freeland auditioned for Southers and was cast in Congo Square, by playwright Frank Gagliano.

“Mark famously says, ‘It was the first musical that Playwrights did, and it was the first show that tanked that Playwrights did,’ ” says Freeland, quickly adding that the company has upped its musical game, including the recent Dinah.

Freeland, who was working at Pittsburgh Clear Rights at the time, also was working with Dr. Vernell Lillie at Kuntu Repertory, and Southers heard through the grapevine that this kid liked to direct. 

“I talk about my dreams a lot and out loud, and so I was talking about directing,” Freeland says. 

Southers asked him to direct a one-act Pride Festival play, and he then asked Freeland to work together during Playwrights’ season. The young man from Point Park never left. He is still listed as “associate producer” on the Playwrights’ website, and was a key to keeping the company together while Southers recovered from a devastating car crash in 2015.

“I have been part of Mark’s orbit and inside of Playwrights in so many different ways, but Fishy Woo Woo actually marks the first time I’ve been produced by Pittsburgh Playwrights,” Freeland says.

THE COFFIN MAKER 

Southers’ The Coffin Maker, at Pittsburgh Public Theater, marks another notch in the writer’s cycle of 19th-century plays about the African American experience, patterned after Wilson’s American Century Cycle of 20th century plays. 

Freeland previously directed Southers’ Miss Julie, Clarissa and John, in 2016, and Savior Samuel, in 2019. The latter effectively transported the Strindberg play to the American Midwest in 1877, and went on to be produced at The Black Rep in St. Louis. 

He was slated to also direct Southers’ The Bluegrass Mile last year, but work conflicts finally caught up with Freeland, so the playwright did double duty.

The Coffin Maker is set in 1849 Oklahoma, where free man Lawrence Ebitt and his wife Eula “live peacefully, preparing bodies for burial with care and respect, until their world is turned upside down by a bounty hunter who gets more than he bargained for and a fugitive determined to forge his own future. This Western-comedy-revenge play is a genre-defying world premiere, spiked with heart-stopping revelations.”

The bigger picture of the time period, Freeland notes, is the cultures in conflict at the time the play is set. 

“Black people were caught in the middle, as white people expanded to the West and government entities and treaties basically stripped the land from Native Americans. The white people inhabiting the land were bringing their slaves with them, and that created tension between Native Americans and African Americans.”

Of great importance, he says, is that, “The essence of the indigenous people live inside of this story.”

“I like to follow the words of my mentor August Wilson, ‘Write what you know, and if you don’t know it do the research,’ ” Southers says of the world of The Coffin Maker. “So, I feel like I know these characters. They’re my aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents, and through these characters and writing words that they’re bringing to life, it’s like honoring their presence in my past and letting them continue to live.” 

Southers added that, for him, having his first play produced at Pittsburgh Public Theater was “bigger than Broadway,” noting the company’s legacy of producing August Wilson works. 

The cast features local and national actors, including Pittsburgh’s Garbie Dukes (Is God Is for barebones productions and episodes of HBO’s A League of Their Own and American Rust on Showtime), who will portray the title coffin maker, having previously read the role in The Public’s 2021 developmental presentation of the play. Pittsburgh screen and stage actor and fight coordinator Randy Kovitz, seen recently in Quantum Theatre’s Scenes From an Execution, plays the bounty hunter, having previously appeared in The Public’s productions of The Diary of Anne Frank and Death of a Salesman.

Connor McCanlus (The Public’s Barefoot in the Park) appears as photographer Buchannon, and Robin R. McGee (Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer) portrays Eula. Atlanta native Brandon St. Clair rounds out the cast as “The Dead Man, whose escapades transform these characters’ lives.”

“It is really very important for me to have people in the room who would be able to leave the work in the room, because it’s hard work,” Freeland said of his cast. “It’s work that can induce trauma, it can induce memories. It is physical work as well. And so the cast is such a mesh of creativity and imagination, but also professionalism and just fun.”

The Coffin Maker was granted a long nurturing process at the Public, but the development goes back to the pandemic. The first reading took place over Zoom, when the service was still new to most of the world.

“It’s so wonderful to see the play actually in 3D and to see the tangible nature of the play,” Freeland says.

Having “trudged” through the Zoom experience, Southers went to work on the script before sending it to The Public’s artistic director, Marya Sea Kaminski.

Her reaction, Freeland recalls, was, “Let’s stay in touch about how to make this a possibility.”

That led to an in-person reading and development of the play that opens in previews May 29, with an official opening night on Saturday, June 1, running through June 16, 2024.

FISHY WOO WOO

First of all, please explain that title.

“People are always thrown by my titles, like Kalopsia and Fishy Woo Woo,” Freeland says. “I love titles that have personal meaning, but that I can also make universal. So for me, ‘fishy woo woo’ is basically that feeling that you feel inside when something’s not right. And you know it’s not right. And you have to just trust your instincts, make a big choice, and pray for the best.”

The comedy about queer friendships opens with the character of Shawn and two pals returning to the apartment that Shawn shared with his partner of nine years, to clean out his belongings. 

“And then someone shows up who was not invited, and turns this moment of closure into everything but a moment of closure,” Freeland teases.

“It’s something that I would hope that people could possibly turn on their television,” he adds, “and feel like you can see the show on TV as well.”

The cast of Fishy Woo Woo comprises Jason Shavers, Mils James, Cheryl Bates and Royce Jones, and is directed by his childhood friend, Lovell McFadden.

As in his director-writer relationship with Southers, there is a shorthand and trust with McFadden.

Fishy Woo Woo’s road to a Playwrights premiere began in 2019, with the reading of an excerpt for “Our Queer Stories,” arranged by Jared Pascoe at City Theater. 

Friends who were on hand have been asking Freeland about the play, and a year ago, Southers said to him director, “Hey, I would love to produce your next year. What do you have that you’re working on?”

Freeland had two – the other was about his relationship with his father, who died 10 years ago. For now, though, “I didn’t want to live in that world.”

A gay rom-com may not be what people expect from a company that annually produces August Wilson and more dramas than comedy, but Southers’ response echoed what he had heard about his own play. 

“He said, ‘OK, let’s make this happen.”

Fishy Woo Woo debuts at Madison Arts Center May 31-June 15.

KEEPING IT ALL STRAIGHT

May is a bit of a down time at City Theatre, heading into the appropriately titled Sister’s Summer School Catechism: God Never Takes A Vacation!, opening June 6, which means there may be some rest in sight for Freeland.

He adds that “the great thing about having multiple artistic directors,” as City Theatre does, is when he is busy elsewhere, co-AD Claire Drobot and managing director James McNeel are ”really holding down the fort.”

And he has his own way of keeping all the projects swirling around him straight, and it goes back to the late 19th century.

“I’m such an analog dude,” Freeland says. “I have computers and I have an iPad and things like that, but really, I have notebooks. I have color-coded notebooks where I have a notebook for The Coffin Maker, one for Fishy Woo Woo, one for City Theatre, and I just get inside my book and make notes. I always take them all with me because you never know when creativity will strike, but I’m such a guy that likes to write things out.”

He has more to say about the catharsis of writing things out in long hand and returning to see how his handwriting reflects his mood – “you can’t see that when you type” – and then he puts another nail in the coffin, so to speak, of the Digital Age.

“While I do keep digital files and we think we can always have that with us, your phone can die, your laptop can die, your iPad can die. But that pen and paper is right there with you, forever.”

TICKETS AND DETAILS

  • The Pittsburgh Public Theater premiere of The Coffin Maker runs May 29 – June 16, 2024, at the O’Reilly Theater. Tickets: visit PPT.org/Coffin or call 412-316-1600. Discounted tickets for anyone 26 or younger, use promo code HOTTIX. 
  • The Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company premiere of Fishy Woo Woo runs May 31st – June 15, 2024, at Madison Arts Center,  3401 Milwaukee St., Hill District. Tickets: visit

RELATED EVENTS ON FRIDAY, MAY 31

  • Pittsburgh Public will host Black Brilliance: A celebration of Black artistry. The free event from 6-7 p.m. will feature food and beverages, networking opportunities, spotlights on Pittsburgh artistry, and more in this free affinity event from 6 to 7 p.m., prior to concurrent performances of The Coffin Maker on the O’Reilly Theater stage and New Horizon Theater’s The Nacirema Society in the Helen Wayne Rauh Rehearsal Hall. Registration is required and is available at PPT.org/BlackBrilliance. 
  • Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre celebrates opening night of Fishy Woo Woo with an art gallery featuring the visual artistry of the group Kre-A-Div Kingz, and live music by artist Louie Castle
Pittsburgh Public Theater Sets Cast for Mark Clayton Southers’ ‘The Coffin Maker’