With his lucky baseball cap crowning an aureole of gray hair, Marion Isaac McClinton looks more like a kindly high school coach than the author of a hard-hitting play about gang violence.
As it happens, the 37-year-old Minnesota playwright has worked with high school students, but they were delinquents, not
athletes, and his role was closer to that of counselor than coach.
In fact, an incident during his years as an educational assistant with the St. Paul school system partly inspired his play, "Police Boys," which is having its world premiere as part of Center Stage's re:Discovery series.
In the mid-1980s, McClinton saw a local television news report about the rape and murder of an 80-year-old woman. The perpetrator -- age 16 -- turned out to be one of his former students. The police called him in to talk to the boy. "The thing he said that stuck -- it's a line in the play -- he said, 'I was bored and had nothing better to do.' I couldn't understand it," McClinton recalls.
In an effort to make sense of this senseless act, McClinton returned to a script he had shelved a decade earlier. The reworked script, "Police Boys," is set in an inner-city police precinct on the night an aspiring gang member is arrested for raping and murdering a young white woman.
Acknowledging that the plot bears some resemblance to the infamous Central Park jogger case, McClinton says, "I'm glad this play didn't strike when that trial was at its peak. There's sound-bite distance now. The issues the play is raising can be looked at solely in their own right. The play isn't just about gangs and violence. Hopefully it's about where it comes from."
Those issues have been applauded by Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart Simms. Addressing an audience assembled as part of Center Stage's extensive community awareness program for this play, Simms recently praised the script for asking "some of the basic questions troubling our community." (As part of this program, Center Stage is holding discussions with production personnel following each performance.)
"Police Boys" -- which the playwright is also directing -- is McClinton's fourth full-length play. Although the script is rife with profanity and violence, he says it is not his most rage-filled play. Thematically, however, it is informed by ideas underlying much of his writing, including responsibility, community and "re-establishing our identity -- something the black community's been doing since slavery."
An actor as well as director and playwright, McClinton was asthmatic as a child and spent a lot of time at home watching movies on TV. He traces his desire to act back to age 5, when he saw Marlon Brando in "The Wild Ones." Since leaving his school system job in 1983, he has supported himself in the theater, primarily as a member of the Penumbra Theatre Company, as a resident playwright in the St. Paul schools and through fellowships from the Playwrights' Center of Minneapolis.
McClinton admits he doubted "Police Boys" would ever be produced. "I think the emotional nature of the violence might have scared people off," he says. However, since Center Stage announced its production, theaters in Philadelphia and New York have expressed interest.
As to audience interest, McClinton expects the play to be controversial. "The only way I don't want audiences to react is to say, 'Eh, it was all right.' Like it or hate it."
What: The re:Discovery Series.
When: "The Baltimore Waltz" and "Police Boys" will be presented in rotating repertory through April 26. "Police Boys," currently in previews, opens Wednesday; "The Baltimore Waltz" begins previews Saturday and opens April 8. Call the theater for a complete schedule.
Where: Center Stage, Pearlstone Theater, 700 N. Calvert St.
Call: (410) 332-0033.