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Review: ‘The Coffin Maker’ Turns the Tables on Injustice in Searing Debut

The Powerful Premiere Concludes Pittsburgh Public Theater’s 2023-24 Season on a High Note


The Coffin Maker, a riveting, provocative world-premiere work from Mark Clayton Southers, manifests what Judgement Day justice and retribution may look like, as seen through the lens of African-American enslavement. 

Justice, to be sure, looks like freedom to those denied it. To a young man weaned on inhuman suffering, justice and “an eye for an eye” might just be one and the same.

Garbie Dukes and Robin R. McGee play the couple at the heart of the premiere
of The Coffin Maker at Pittsburgh Public Theater. (Images: Michael Henninger)

Audience members may rethink their own notions of justice and retribution after seeing The Coffin Maker, which has that in common with Jeremy O. HarrisSlave Play. The works also have in common plot details that would be spoilers to discuss, so I’ll borrow a warning from the  New York Magazine review of that 10-times Tony-nominated work:

“If you’re seeing the play — and there are plenty of reasons to see it — stop reading now; come back afterward.” Or beware spoilers ahead.

It is safe to say that Hamlet and Django Unchained are brought to mind in Southers’ jolting tale, the season finale for Pittsburgh Public Theater and its first production of a play by the leader of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company

The Coffin Maker marks the latest chapter in playwright Southers’ 19th Century Cycle – plays about the African-American experience from each decade of the 1800s, mirroring what August Wilson did for the 20th century.

Unlike Wilson, whose set nine of his 10 plays in the Hill District, Southers’ plays range far and wide: The Coffin Maker takes place in the 1849 Oklahoma territory, more than a decade before the Civil War. Others in the cycle include Savior Samuel, in the Midwest in1877; Miss Julie, Clarissa and John, in 1888 Virginia; and The Bluegrass Mile, in 1899 Kentucky, and so on, all debuted at Southers’ own company, Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre

The Public’s O’Reilly Theater affords The Coffin Maker a large-scale, visually arresting production, matched in scope by the play’s emotional depth.

Often dark in tone and subject matter, the play also is brightened by the loving couple at its center and some genuinely laugh-out-loud scenes. At its heart is undertaker and free man Lawrence Ebitt and his partner in life and work, Eula – Garbie Dukes and Robin R. McKee, both terrific and wholly believable as a couple bound by love and the years-long goal of raising enough money to buy her freedom. 

As they enter, you can almost smell the wood dust from the rustic set, with a “body” at rest in an open coffin. It is here that the couple prepare for burial each soul entrusted to them, including a short-and-sweet prayer service by Eula. 

When alone, Lawrence speaks his truths to the dead, while Eula communes with God. Together, they lean on each other for companionship and hope. 

Connor McCanlus, Brandon St. Clair as “The Dead Man” and Garbie Dukes,
in The Coffin Maker, a new play by Mark Clayton Southers.
(Image: Michael Henninger)

Into their world comes a self-aggrandizing bounty hunter, who speaks racial slurs casually, unafraid of offending the African-American couple whose services he requires. Randy Kovitz, whose varied stage and screen career includes The Diary of Anne Frank for the Public, imbues the character of Hollister with wanton arrogance and bigotry, a flesh-and-blood illustration of inhumanity.    

Hollister has brought the coffin maker the body of a notorious Black killer of white men, and he wants it prepared for a photograph that will allow him to collect his reward. During the capture, Hollister’s beloved horse has become lame. He will put the poor creature out of its misery to be buried with respect, paying Lawrence three-times the price of burying “The Dead Man” – whose name he dare not speak, like Voldemort in the Harry Potter series.

Hollister vows to return in two days time with a photographer, and the thickening plot truly begins to roil.

Randy Kovitz, Brandon St. Clair and Connor McCanlus are caught in a life-and-death struggle in The Coffin Maker. (Image: Michael Henninger)

Here also is where one plot point briefly lost me, using a device that renders the bounty hunter not just dastardly, but incompetent. Yet another twist, involving a concoction that makes people only appear to be dead, totally fits the bill.

Atlanta native Brandon St. Clair, making a chilling Pittsburgh Publiv stage debut as “The Dead Man” in your program, arises as the catalyst for action and mayhem in the lives of everyone in his orbit. His story may alter your capacity for forgiveness, and definitely puts Eula’s tightly held faith to the test – a palpable struggle in McKee’s capable hands. 

With troubles mounting amid coffins and burial tools, she protests, “We don’t want no bloodshed here.” The obvious answer comes back: “This is the place for it.” 

Such ironic humor abounds, and director Monteze Freeland gives the moments their due, without sacrificing the looming danger of Hollister’s return.

The cast rounds out to a quintet at the top of the second act, when “Picture Man” Connor McCanlus bursts on the scene like a breath of fresh air, seeming to spread good will to all, and disdainful of Hollister’s hostility.

McCanlus in best known for improv and comedy – he makes his O’Reilly stage debut here, after appearing in an outdoor Public production of Barefoot in the Park. He also has performed in several barebones productions, and he knows how to bring the giggles or gravitas.

Farcical scenes flow into scenes of violence, revelations range from funny to terrifying, and just when you think you know what’s coming next, you are bound to be surprised, even horrified, but always moved. 

Southers’ script smartly keeps the action flowing while returning focus to Dukes and McKee – Lawrence’s desperation to free his wife, Eula’s internal struggles bubbling to the surface, their eternal “we’re in this together” spirit.

McKee (Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer) brings music and musicality to the role of a woman who is feeling empowered beyond her servitude. She is as compelling to watch as the violent retribution, seen and spoken of, in The Coffin Maker.

The Coffin Maker is the fourth play in Southers’ cycle that I have seen, with many of the same creative-team collaborators, but here given scale to match Souther’s vivid text. The two-story dwelling and rustic Western setting is another triumph for set designer Tony Ferrieri, Southers’ long-time collaborator at Playwrights, aided mightily by Latrice Lovett’s lighting, sound by Bill Toles and special effects by Steve Tolin. The production wisely steers clear of CGI that might distract from the period piece. 

The play justly begins and ends with the voice of the brilliant McKee, whose heroic Eula must fend off earthly and inner demons, and who serves as a guiding light through the darkest of times.


The Pittsburgh Public Theater premiere of The Coffin Maker runs through June 16, 2024, at the O’Reilly Theater. Tickets: visit or call 412-316-1600. Discounted tickets for anyone 26 or younger, use promo code HOTTIX. Note: The Coffin Maker contains frequent use of the N-word as a slur, and other adult themes.

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