Two lives linked without knowing it

On Jan. 18, I opened up the Star Tribune to see stories on two individuals who probably have no idea that their lives had been woven together. The first piece I read was an obituary for Waring Jones. Waring had died at the age of 80 after living a rich life as a film producer, playwright and a significant patron of The Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis. I got to know Waring rather well in 1985 when I was hired for my first job out of college as director of educational outreach for The Playwrights’ Center. Waring loved The Playwrights’ Center and passionately believed in its mission as a service organization to support and nurture emerging playwrights. For years, his patronage helped keep the organization afloat. He also helped The Playwrights’ Center buy a quirky old church on Franklin Avenue that remains its home today. I, as a kid right out of college, always admired how Waring would take time to chat with the staff and share his genuine enthusiasm for new plays.

In the 1980s, The Playwrights’ Center was abuzz with energy from the amazing talent and active participation of writers such as Kevin Kling, Patty Lynch,
Steven Dietz and Marion McClinton. All of these writers got early support from The Playwrights’ Center and moved forward through the decades to successful careers in the theatre. During that time, I ran a program called “Storytellers” which produced simple one-act plays with educational themes that toured to local schools. For my first project, I had the great fortune of commissioning a play by Marion McClinton.

In 1985, Marion was brimming with talent and was among the many playwrights during that period who was seeking support from The Playwrights’ Center as he tried to eke out a living on his writing. He created a wonderful narrative about a freed slave, which featured actor James Williams (also to become well known — starring at the Guthrie and also on Broadway) and toured to more than100 schools that year. At one elementary school, I watched Marion and James up on stage during a postperformance question-and-answer session. The show had been brought to this 100-percent Caucasian school as part of African-African History Month. A young boy raised his hand and asked the playwright and actor, “Do you know any real black people?” James and Marion held back their laughter as they explained that they were real African Americans and that most of their family members were as well. This response was met with impressed mummers of appreciation from the young audience.

On Jan. 18, I thought it was poignant and fitting that on this day of Waring’s funeral and obituary, the Star Tribune also featured a long story on Marion McClinton as director of the Children Theater Company’s production of “Bud Not Buddy.” Marion has become a huge figure in the national theater scene not only because of his playwriting but also because of his Tony-nominated and Obie Award-winning directing. Waring’s obituary did not mention Marion, and Marion’s article did not mention Waring. In fact, it is likely that they never met, but their lives will always be linked together. Marion, and all those other early Playwrights’ Center writers, is a part of Waring’s legacy — they are like separate trees in a forest, with their roots intertwined.

Jocelyn Hale is executive director of the Loft Literary Center. She shares this column with her husband, Glenn Miller.