Mr. McClinton was both actor and director at the young company.
“It was probably the most exciting time I’ve had in the theater,” he said in the video. “I didn’t know it then, but when I look back on it, there was no time when I was as creative, working with people as creative, who were as hungry and driven as we were.”
A pivotal moment came in 1977, when Mr. Wilson, who had yet to start on his famous “Pittsburgh Cycle” of 10 plays, came to St. Paul from Pittsburgh to check out the company. In 1981 the theater gave Mr. Wilson his first professional production, a work called “Black Bart and the Sacred Hills” (Mr. McClinton played the narrator), and it nurtured other plays of his over the years.
Mr. McClinton directed his first Wilson play there, “The Piano Lesson,” in 1993. The play had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1990, and Mr. Wilson by then was known for being prickly about interpretations of his work. Mr. McClinton was out of town the night Mr. Wilson saw the Penumbra company’s “Piano Lesson.”
“I called back home and talked to Terry Bellamy” — a company member — “and said, ‘Gee, man, what did August say?’” Mr. McClinton recalled 20 years later. “He went, ‘August flipped out.’ And I think ‘flipped out’ means he hated it.”
It meant the opposite. Mr. Wilson had had considerable success with the director Lloyd Richards, but from then on he worked regularly with Mr. McClinton, who directed productions of Wilson plays all over the country. Mr. McClinton, Mr. Wilson said, helped him re-examine his own texts. With the remounting of “Jitney,” Mr. McClinton “pushed and pulled and provoked and forced me to do the necessary work on the play,” Mr. Wilson wrote in a 2000 essay in The Times.
“Frustrated and feeling boxed in by the set particulars of the play, I almost screamed at him, ‘I feel like I’m in a box!’” Mr. Wilson wrote. “His reply proved to be the liberating factor in my ability to do the rewrites: ‘It’s your box. You can break out of it any time you want.’”