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January 21, 1999

Kuntu Repertory Theatre season celebrates Pittsburgh playwrights

Pitt's Kuntu Repertory Theatre continues its season-long celebration of Pittsburgh playwrights with Frank Hightower's "Lifting," Jan. 28-Feb. 13.

Set in Pittsburgh just after World War II, "Lifting" is the story of Buford Kincade (played by Wali Abdullah), a bar owner torn between his love for Mavis (Nyjah Moore), a blues singer considering a return to the road with a young guitarist, and Minnie (Tracey Turner), his widowed sister-in-law, who grieves for a son killed in the war.

The drama's title refers to the transforming power of the blues, the way it lifts and inspires people to carry on through pain and suffering, playwright Hightower says.

Hightower's father plays alto sax, and a female cousin played bass professionally in the 1940s and 1950s. "Growing up, I heard lots of her stories about life as a musician," he recalls. Several of Hightower's high school friends played in an R&B band. Hightower used to travel from his native Manchester to the Hill District to hear them play and hang out with them at clubs like the Hurricane and the Crawford Grill.

And yet…

"No, I can't sing or play a note of music," Hightower says, laughing at the irony — but also, seeing a silver lining.

Since taking early retirement in 1996 from Community College of Allegheny County, where he was a physical plant administrator, the 54-year-old Hightower has worked fulltime as a writer, photographer and stained glass artist.

"I bought a computer to help me with my writing," he says, "but then I saw that I could use it in connection with my art and photography, too. Manipulating a photo on the computer, then sending it to labs from your home, that kind of thing.

"The problem is, I have to force myself to stick to one project. If I'm not careful, I tend to skip from one thing to another and I wind up not making a lot of progress on anything.

"So I guess I'm fortunate that, even though I love music, I have no musical talent whatsoever," he concludes. "Otherwise, music would be one more thing for me to spend my time on." Like the three other playwrights featured in the Kuntu Rep's current season, Hightower is a veteran of the Kuntu Writers Workshop, founded in 1976 by August Wilson and Pitt Africana Studies faculty member Rob Penny. Hightower got to know both men during the late 1960s and early 1970s, while acting and writing for Pittsburgh's Black Horizon Theatre and attending concerts and poetry readings in Oakland and the Hill District.

"It was like, art was all over the place back then," Hightower recalls. "When you would go to hear music at the clubs on Centre Avenue, you would run into poets and playwrights like August and Rob. At a poetry reading, you would see painters and musicians in the audience. It was a great atmosphere." For all their social and political messages, today's rappers and other young black artists seem unaware of their African American heritage, Hightower says. "Back in the 60s and into the 70s, black artists had a mission. The struggle for freedom and civil rights was reflected in the art. I think that, today, the younger artists take a lot of African American history for granted.

"Even my own son. He has a lot more opportunities than previous generations [of African Americans] had, but he takes these things for granted. When I got out of high school in 1963, it didn't mean anything that my teachers said I was a talented photographer and that I had won some awards for my photography. If I wanted a job working for a daily newspaper in Pittsburgh back then, I was out of luck, whatever my qualifications might have been. Today, it's different." Hightower says "Lifting" reflects both his interest in local African American history and the influence of August Wilson, who is best known for his cycle of Pulitzer Prize-winning dramas set in Pittsburgh in earlier decades of the 20th century.

"Oh, certainly August was an influence," Hightower acknowledges. "I mean, I studied with August, I've photographed him, he's a great artist. My early inspiration in writing can definitely be traced back to Rob Penny and August Wilson." Hightower began writing "Lifting" in 1989. The Kuntu Rep originally planned to stage it seven years ago, but casting problems interfered. It was a blessing in disguise, the playwright says.

In preparing for the 1992 production, Hightower was introduced to City Theatre Company head Marc Masterson and to director Claude Purty, a frequent collaborator of August Wilson's. "Both of them helped me to improve the play," Hightower says. "I think it's much stronger now than it was in 1992." "Lifting" runs at the Stephen Foster Memorial Theatre Jan. 28 through Feb. 13, Thursdays to Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m.

Kuntu Rep's season of plays by Pittsburgh playwrights also will feature: * Javon Johnson's "Papa's Blues," performed in the Pitt Studio Theatre, April 14-May 1. Johnson, who won the 1998 Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award for "Papa's Blues," is a master of fine arts candidate in Pitt's theatre arts department.

* William Mayfield's Theodore Ward Prize-winning "Sing Black Hammer," in the Stephen Foster Memorial Theatre, June 17-July 3.

The season began last fall with Valerie Lawrence's "Sacred Ground."

–Bruce Steele

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