Marion McClinton’s Police Boys takes place, says the script, in “a future you can touch with your hand.” That future is a moving thing, pushing out ahead of a play that started its long life at the Playwrights’ Center. It takes place in the gang unit of a police station as tensions swell between a teenager in the holding cell and the police force interrogating him. Marion wrote the drama in the ‘80s and workshopped it at the Playwrights’ Center before it went on to production at Baltimore’s Center Stage in 1992 and at Playwrights Horizons and Pittsburgh Public Theater in 1995.
The play has been calling to Marion again, and in early March at the Playwrights’ Center he heard it aloud for the first time in 22 years. In a weeklong workshop, Marion and his collaborators re-immersed themselves in the world of the play and its characters. In the room were dramaturg Carlyle Brown and actors Darius Dotch, James A. Williams, Antonio Duke, Joy Dolo, Darrick Mosley, Kate Guentzel, Terry Hempleman, Ryan Colbert, and Terry Bellamy (who was reading the same role he played in the 1992 production at Center Stage).
“I was surprised at how well it held together,” Marion said when I talked to him after the final reading. “Part of this week was realizing how well it plays now, and that it might have more meaning now than it had back then.”
Marion told me the play originally grew out of his experience as a Time Out counselor in a school for violent kids. He talked about one boy in particular, who committed an unthinkable crime at 11 years old. When Marion asked him why he did it, and the kid replied, “I was bored and I had nothin’ better to do.”
“That stuck with me,” Marion says. “Wanting to write about, ‘How did this happen?’ How did this kid get to be like this?”
The manifestation of that kid in Police Boys is the Royal Boy, a character who Marion says is “14 going on 13.” After the reading on the final day of the workshop, the cast and dramaturg held a long discussion (which Marion invited the audience to listen in on), and Royal Boy’s character was a big topic.
“Even though I created him,” said Marion, “he still surprises me.”
Antonio Duke, who read the part, believes that “the tragedy of Royal Boy isn’t that he’s violent, it’s that he’s charming. Because in that charm, you see that he could have been something else.”
James A. Williams shared that a speech Royal Boy has about witnessing his son’s birth is something “I have never heard anywhere. I’ve been that character, but I’ve never seen him on stage.” He compared his experience with one he had during August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. “When I saw the end of Ma Rainey for the first time, I knew that situation. I’d never seen that situation portrayed before and there was something about that that opened me up in a way to be prepared for a truth that I had never gotten out of the theater.”
August Wilson provided a dramaturgical presence in the room, the result of Marion spending so many years directing August’s work on Broadway and regional theaters. When Carlyle Brown asked Marion what it was like working on a play he wrote long ago, when he was a different person, Marion spoke to the ways in which working with August (and other playwrights) shaped him since then: “I see mistakes that I wouldn’t have seen back then. From my time as a director over these past twenty-some years, I’ve gotten to learn how theater works better. And how a play can work better. The time I spent with August was really enlightening as far as how he worked and what he deemed important and unimportant.” (He added, “Getting him to cut anything was a motherfucker.”)
Part of the reason Marion wanted to start this new journey with Police Boys was that he was remembering the rewriting August Wilson did on Jitney for its 1996 production at Pittsburgh Public Theater. “He came back at it being the writer he was in 1996 rather than the writer he was in 1981,” Marion said. “With four additions to the entire script, it changed the meter of the play and made it stronger. We took a look at the play when we got into rehearsal in Pittsburgh and he went, ‘I’ve got to get to work.’ He found a way not to disrupt the spine of the play. The incidents in the play that resonate are the incidents that were in the play back in 1981: Booster finding out his father was dead, Turnbo coming at YoungBlood with a gun… those were all in the play from the very beginning. The biggest thing he added was a scene with Becker saying, ‘I’m tired of lettin’ everybody else fight my battles. I’m fighting my own battles. We gonna stay here, we not leaving.’ And you know, it lifted Becker’s character so that when he died we missed him. Because we saw him have a journey.”
Terry Bellamy added, “We missed him because of his nobility.”
“Mm-hmm,” said Marion, “and he wouldn’t have had that without that scene. He was being reacted upon by everybody. So to me, the journey of looking at [Police Boys] this week was to see where my four scenes were. See where something can be enriched and deepened that helps tell the story better. That takes the audience a little bit deeper into the characters.”
To start with, Marion wants to write a new scene with the police chief, and to hone the language of some of the characters, hunting down any lines “which didn’t necessarily come out of the mouth of the character, but came out of the mouth of the playwright.” In regards to the language, his goal is “tightening it up so it’s a tight fist that is thrown.”
I asked him how he finds each character’s unique voice, and he said that he acts it out. “I was an actor for a long time before I did anything else, so I read it out loud, I act it out. I riff, and then I write down what I’m riffing.”
As he revises, what is foremost in his mind is not to “break the spine” of the play. “That was part of the problem with some of the rewrites I was doing before. The play was altering to something else—it was becoming topical, and having a life of its own. And if something’s too topical, it can’t transcend time. A lot of the issues in this play are still issues. Gangs have gone nowhere, they just stopped being covered by the press.”
Speaking of gangs in the post-reading discussion lead to conversation about the themes of the play, and how Royal Boy is joining a gang because he is looking to belong to something.
“Isn’t that what everybody in this play is talking about?” asked dramaturg Carlyle Brown. “Like, ‘Who’s got my back? Who’s going to take care of me? Where do I belong?’ That theme keeps resonating.”
It sure resonated for the artists in the workshop—as everyone handed back their binders and put their coats on to leave, they all talked about how ready they were to get the play up. “Just let me know,” all the actors kept saying to Marion. “Just let me know and I’ll be there.”
In the meantime, Marion will hold the actors’ voices in his head as he returns to the script, pleased to find how well it held up for him, and inspired to make it even stronger. He’ll be writing toward a play that, as he puts it, offers “not a conclusion but something complete.”