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The Bluegrass Mile - A Race with a Racial Overlay

Kymir Cogdell-Freeman as Curtis and Malic Maat as ABCD Credit PPTC

    I find it ironic that, even before I read Mark Clayton Southers’ statement in his playwright notes that he was inspired by August Wilson, I sat through “The Bluegrass Mile” noting how much the play resonated with Wilsonian touches.

    Southers emulates his artistic mentor by planning to write one play focusing on the African American experience for each decade of the 19th century, just as Wilson did for each decade of the 20th century. Then, too, Southers has a knack for telling stories that veer off from the main narrative, similar to what Wilson did in his plays.

    Thirdly, Southers manages to give his plays much of the same experiential ambience and sense of place Wilson incorporates into his plays, and both playwrights create strong, well defined and clearly differentiated characters.

    In “The Bluegrass Mile”, which Southers wrote and is now directing, we get a glimpse at the late 1800s, where African American jockeys were winning their share of important horse races. According to Michelle Belan, who added explanatory notes to the program, black jockey, Oliver Lewis, rode Aristedes to victory in the first Kentucky Derby in 1875.

    Between 1890 and 1899, the period in which Southers’ play is set, black jockeys won six Derbies, one Preakness and three Belmont Stakes. The lucrative nature of the profession eventually caught the eye of their White counterparts who began sabotaging them on the track, employing such hostile practices as running them into the rails, hitting them with their whips and injuring them and their horses.

    It is into this time period that Southers opens his play, now getting its world premiere at the Madison Arts Center in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. We’re soon introduced to two young jockeys, ABCD (Malic Maat) and Curtis Henshaw (Kymir Cogdell-Freeman), who arrive at Rose Lee Drew’s (Crystal Bates) tastefully stylish boarding house, masterfully created by Pittsburgh scenic designer superstar, Tony Ferrieri. There to greet them are the mistress of the house who rules her boarders with a motherly but firm hand and Kermit Thomas (Charles E. Timbers), a soft-spoken, insightful and sagacious long-time boarder with the physique of a bull. The playful interplay of wits, jibes and verbal counter foils of Rose and her boarder provide some of the play’s most entertaining moments.

    Both jockeys have near-opposite temperaments. Maat, as ABCD (pronounced Abee Cee Dee), is older, more devil-may-care, self-confident, quick with a joke and impish. Note if you’re wondering about his name, he explains that his father named his children right out of the alphabet with siblings called EFGH and so on.

    Cogdell-Freeman is a 15-year-old CAPA student, but his young age doesn’t interfere with his right-on performance. He’s more serious, introspective and inquisitive than his jockey counterpart, and, as you find out later in the play, he’s also steadfast, head strong and persistent.

    As Curtis, he gets off the train in town carrying his saddle, something that arouses suspicion in the townsfolk, who wonder if he’s about to steal a horse to go with it.  

David Whalen, Charles E. Timbers and Cogdell-Freeman Credit: PPTC

    This prompts the arrival of Sheriff Tanner (David Whalen) bent on investigating the matter with the cocksure manner of a Southern lawman. Throughout the play, Whalen has to straddle a fine line between protecting the rights and persons of the jockeys and quelling the aroused suspicions and anger of the White townsfolk, especially after an unexpected turn of events after the race is over muddies the waters and takes the play on an unexpected trajectory.

    In Act Two, Southers masterfully sets up some precarious moments that could lead down a number of different paths. He draws out the suspense and anxious moments like some seasoned director of horror films. And there are unexpected plot reversals that only add to the enjoyment of the play.

    In the pivotal second act, he introduces an auxiliary scene that involves a romantic tete-a-tete between Rosa Lee and William Pickford (Kevin Brown), a horse trainer who works for the wealthy Cogsdale family, that could easily be edited out of the script except it’s so sweetly construed and heart-warming, you’ll be glad Southers decided to keep it in.

Crystal Bates as Rosa and Kevin Brown as William Pickford Credit: PPTC

    What happens when Henrietta Cogsdale’s prized thoroughbred goes missing after the race and the affected owner (Kendra McLaughlin) enters the boarding house seeking answers foster some of the most exciting moments of the play.  Dressed in the finery of a Southern lady of wealth by costume designer, Kimberly Brown, McLaughlin captures the patronizing confidence and bearing of someone at the top of the local social, economic and power structure.

    Just when Rosa Lee offers to sacrifice it all to help the endangered jockeys, Timbers delivers an emotional and almost Shakespearean monologue to influence the sheriff and encourage him to change his course of action. But is it effective enough to thwart the passions of the frenzied mob outside the house?  That question is best left unanswered in order to let Southers conclude his poignant narrative in his own inimitable style.

    If I was asked to opine whether the play has a chance to go on to other venues around the country, I’d give it a definite yes. In fact, I liked the totality of the artistry of the work so much, I even feel it could translate well into a film adaptation.

    In addition to its sheer entertainment value, the play Southers creates is an important learning experience, one wrapped cohesively around a well-written story line.

The Cast of The Bluegrass Mile Credit: PPTC

    The Bluegrass Mile, written and directed by Mark Clayton Southers, is at the Madison Arts Center, 3401 Milwaukee Street in Pittsburgh's Hill District thru from October 29. For tickets, go to


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