August Wilson’s vision of Pittsburgh in plays like “Fences” and “The Piano Lesson” brought his native Hill District to stages across the world.
But though Wilson is a defining voice, his work is only one part of a rich community of Black playwrights, directors and actors with roots in the city.
Founded by Vernell Lillie in the 1970s, the Kuntu Repertory Theatre hosted playwrights like Rob Penny in its run of nearly 40 years. The New Horizon Theater, dedicated to fostering Black arts, hosted its first production in 1992, followed a decade later by Mark Clayton Southers, who founded the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company to support local talent.
And Pittsburgh natives like Billy Porter, Lamman Rucker and the late Bill Nunn, among many others, have earned broad acclaim for their roles on stage and screen. While success often has a component of luck, it also depends on dedication and community support.
Pittsburgh’s Black theater community continues to cultivate new artists who are hoping for — and who’ve achieved — recognition far outside the city. What does it take to be successful as an actor, and how do performers handle uncertainty and rejection? The stories of three young actors show the path from early inspiration to roles on the professional stage.
Nia Woodson, 16, made her professional debut in fourth grade as Raynell in August Wilson’s “Fences.”
Nia and her family live next door to Southers, and he asked Nia’s mother if her daughter could play the role. That was the beginning of a young life of art, music and theater.
“She was young, but I knew she was special, and I made the invitation to her mom because I felt she could do it,” Southers said.
Nia’s grandmother had known Nunn — a film star, Hill District native and cofounder of Pittsburgh’s August Wilson’s Monologue Competition. She had encouraged Nia early on, without success initially.
She would often try to get Nia to consider different opportunities to get involved in acting. “But because I was so young, I was scared to perform in front of other people,” Nia said.
The role of Raynell was a perfect proving ground. Not only did it help assuage her shyness, it ignited her passion for theater.
“My favorite part was just hearing the audience,” Nia said. “I love audience energy and I love lights — so all of it together, was just like, this is something I want to keep doing.”
Nia’s mother, Tiffani Hunt, is a former dancer and knew some of the dynamics of the performance world. She helped prepare Nia for the stage, assisting her with lines and blocking. In the lead-up to opening night, Nia started to feel overwhelmed. After the first performance, she felt free.
She performed in “The Piano Lesson” in fifth grade and played Raynell in “Fences” again in the summer before sixth grade.
After eight years of performing, Nia is not always so tense, but it depends on the size of the role. Upon entering Pittsburgh CAPA in sixth grade, she had concerns about being able to memorize long passages of script. As part of her school audition, she memorized a monologue by Celie from “The Color Purple,” which required her to be vulnerable.
Nia is also a writer and learned to pair words and dance. She noted the importance of having a relationship with a mentor, which she developed through the Alumni Theater Company.
“Say if you don’t feel comfortable telling your parents something, and your mentor is sort of like your backbone,” Nia said, comparing them to both an older sibling and a parent. “They also help you keep on track.”
Nia is planning to attend Morgan State University in Maryland, the same school her grandmother attended. She’s still drawn to performing and writing but has also developed a strong interest in psychology. Similar to mentorship, she sees the role of a therapist as offering support.
“I think of someone who is constantly there,” she said. “Someone who is like your back bone, like the back of your chair.”
Melessie Clark, 29, always had a song and a dance as part of her personality.
At age 6, her mother enrolled her at Stage Right!, a performing arts school near where they were living in Greensburg.
“It was no accident for me,” Melessie said. “I feel like I knew from a very young age that I wanted to be a performer.”
Originally planning to focus on pop music, she got involved in choir and performed in high school musicals. As a junior in high school, she started taking acting classes at the Donna Belajac Actors Studio Downtown and then prepping for auditions with seniors who were getting ready for college.
She looked at this as an opportunity to get an inside look at where she was hoping to be in a year.
Right before her senior year in high school, Melessie attended a summer pre-college drama program at Carnegie Mellon University. One of her mentors was Carter Redwood, an already experienced actor she knew from her acting classes. His mentorship helped her grow as an actor, and the program helped give her a feeling of how it would be to attend an acting conservatory with students from across the country.
She went on to study drama at Point Park University, graduating summa cum laude in 2015. Her first job out of college was at the Civic Light Opera, where she was cast in two shows and got her actor’s equity card, along with guaranteed base pay and hours through the union.
After the summer season, she headed to New York.
“That was always the plan,” she said. “But I don’t think I expected to go so quickly.”
She performed in a regional production of a musical called “Sign of the Times.” She traveled back and forth over the years and returned to Pittsburgh when the pandemic hit.
She’s recently performed in “An Untitled New Play by Justin Timberlake” at the City Theatre.
Rita Gregory, a veteran Pittsburgh actress, co-starred with Melessie in New Horizon’s “The Old Settler.”
“Working with Melessie was refreshing and a joy,” she said. “She brought so much positivity to the production. And I was delighted at the respect she showed her fellow actors and her clear commitments to her craft.”
Melessie said she feels blessed to have the benefit of family support, especially in an industry filled with so much rejection.
Despite the inherent difficulties, she said acting allows her to have experiences she wouldn’t otherwise.
“The appeal for me is the ability to step into someone else’s shoes, thoughts and way of life,” Melessie said. “By understanding the mind of a character, you help the audience better understand them as well.”
Carter Redwood has been in the acting business for nearly two decades.
He began at age 10 when he was cast as Andre, the store owner’s son, in “When the Water Runs Clear,” which Southers wrote for the Pittsburgh Playwright Theatre Company (PPTCO).
The play tells of a 40-something African American man who manages a store owned by a white man and his quest to buy it after the owner decides to sell but is reluctant to give him the opportunity.
Andre is also the name of the character Carter plays each week on the CBS show “FBI: International.”
Southers said he saw Carter’s early commitment to the craft of acting when he cut his cornrows off because the style didn’t match the time period of the play – a decision he made on his own.
Carter’s mother, Tawnya Farris Redwood, said she wasn’t surprised by his interest in the play. “As early as 7 or 8 years old, [he] was already warm, colorful, filled with personality and was artistic by nature.”
The role fell in line with his interests in art and music and activities he’d participated in at the Kingsley Association. And along with other roles with PPTCO and an acting trip to Poland, it set him on a path that’s led to a full-time career.
Early on, he was assertive in seeking roles.
While directing “Christmas is Coming Uptown,” for PPTCO, Eileen J. Morris was looking for an adult actor for the Ghost of Christmas Future. Carter appealed to Morris to let him do it.
“It was his determined tenacity that won me over,” Morris said.
Carter showed his early abilities by singing in his church choir and a variety of performances, and he twice won his age category in Pittsburgh Public Theater’s Shakespeare Monologue and Scene Contest. He attended CMU’s School of Drama on scholarship, graduating cum laude in 2014 and winning accolades such as the John Arthur Kennedy Acting Award.
Last year, Carter was cast in a reimagining of Romeo & Juliet with Pittsburgh Public Theater, and his acting credits include opportunities like the National Geographic miniseries “The Long Road Home” and television appearances on “Madam Secretary” and “Blue Bloods.”
Throughout his education and career, Carter has often expressed a strong sense of gratitude for his community and family, who have seen him on the local stage and beyond.
While young actors often head to bigger cities like New York or Los Angeles, they’re also finding roles at home, and Southers notes that local opportunities for actors are improving.
“In the past years, artists had to leave Pittsburgh to gain national recognition,” Southers said. “This region has gone full circle and has become a hub for new work in television and film — and now we are seeing a lot of artists returning to Pittsburgh.”
Renee P. Aldrich is an award-winning writer, a published author and a motivational speaker. She has been writing for more than 20 years and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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