Black Women Got Something to Say: A Conversation with Pearl Cleage
Leticia Ridley: Welcome to Daughters of Lorraine, a podcast from your friendly neighborhood Black feminists exploring the legacies, present and futures of Black theatre. We are your hosts, Leticia Ridley—
Jordan Ealey: —And Jordan Ealey. On this podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide, we discuss Black theatre history; conduct interviews with local and national Black theatre artists, scholars, and practitioners’ and discuss plays by Black playwrights that have our minds buzzing.
Leticia: Pearl Cleage is a playwright, novelist, poet, and writer. Originally from Detroit, Michigan, and currently living in Atlanta, Georgia, Cleage has had a long and successful career across many different fields, including theatre. As a writer, she has written three novels: What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, which was an Oprah’s Book Club selection, a New York Times Bestseller, and a BCALA Literary Award winner; I Wish I Had a Red Dress; and Some Things I Never Thought I’d Do, which was published in 2003. Cleage has written over a dozen plays, some of which include Flyin’ West, Bourbon at the Border, [and] Blues for an Alabama Sky, which returned to Atlanta as part of the 1996 Cultural Olympiad in conjunction with the 1996 Olympic games. Cleage is currently the playwright-in-residence at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia.
Jordan: In addition to her writing, she’s been an activist all her life. Starting at her father’s church, the shrine of the Black Madonna, Cleage has been involved in the Pan-African Movement, Civil Rights Movement, and Feminist Movement. She has also been a pioneer in grassroots and community theatre. In celebration of this giant of Black theatre, especially in Black feminist and womanist theatre, Leticia and I sat down with Pearl Cleage to get her thoughts on representing Black womanhood, history as storytelling, and fostering important dialogues across generations on the stage.
Hi. Welcome back to another episode of Daughters of Lorraine. I’m Jordan Ealey.
Leticia: I am Leticia Ridley.
Jordan: I cannot tell you all how excited we are today for… every episode is special to us, as you know, but this one is particularly special. We are getting to talk to Black feminist, womanist, poet, playwright and novelist, theatre artist extraordinaire, Pearl Cleage. We are so honored to be sitting down and talking with you today.
Pearl Cleage: Well, thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure.
Leticia: Echoing everything Jordan said, it’s an honor to have you on our podcast, and we just want to get a larger idea of how you entered into theatre. What were your early sparks, and specifically why was theatre one of the many mechanisms that you chose to story tell?
Pearl: I grew up in a family, my father was a minister, and my father was a great speaker, so that I was always aware from being a very small child of the power of somebody talking to people. My father had a real gift for taking very complicated ideas, very complex theories, and breaking them down in a way that regular working people in Detroit could understand. I remember he was reading on The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon. I was maybe eleven or twelve years old, so he gave it to me and said, “You should read this book,” and I’m reading the book thinking, “Oh my God, what is this about?” But he was working on a sermon. When I heard the ideas come back through my father on Sunday morning, it just made me really admire the fact that he could take all of this very complicated work and present it in a way that not only connected to the Bible, but also connected to real people.
Pearl: I grew up with that feeling that the spoken word is so much more powerful sometimes because everybody can’t read, everybody doesn’t like to read. People get out of high school and say, “Oh, I never have to read another book,” which of course makes those of us who are writers cringe a little bit. But those of us who are playwrights get to cheat because they don’t have to read the play. What we have to do is figure out a way to get them into the theatre, and then we get to tell them the story. That’s really what drew me to theatre is that you could tell the stories to people in a way that is so ancient and accessible because it’s sitting around the campfire, really, is what we do. We turn out the lights and we sit among the people in our community, and we have a light that we look at and somebody tells us a story. You really can’t get more ancient than that.
We’re sitting around the campfire telling stories and that’s what playwriting felt like to me, like you could get people to come together and then talk to them. So what I did little plays when I was in school. I did an adaptation of “Chicken Little,” with “The sky is falling!” I was maybe in the third grade and my teacher liked it, so she let us tour it to the sixth grade class, so we thought we were really doing something because they were older than we were. But I always loved the idea of being able to hear that story. Then when I was about eleven years old, the touring company of A Raisin in the Sun from the Negro Ensemble Company came through Detroit and my mother took me, and I was so moved and energized and just excited by what Lorraine Hansberry was doing.
When I saw that you had called yourself Daughters of Lorraine—I feel like I am so totally a Daughter of Lorraine because we were in, I remember it as a high school auditorium, but it was packed, packed, packed. It was wintertime in Detroit, so everybody had these big coats on, so we’re trying to sit on our coats and all of that, but the audience was quiet. They were attentive. They laughed at the stuff that we all knew was true about us, and it was just wonderful. At the end of the show, we all stood up and just screamed and cheered and hollered for, I’m not kidding, about ten minutes, just hoping against hope that they would come back and do the whole show again. If they had, I think that we would have gladly sat back down and watched it. But that was, I think, the moment where I realized that it wasn’t just that I wanted to write plays.
I wanted to write plays for my own community, for the community I lived in. I wanted those folks in my Detroit neighborhood to understand the play and to be able to enjoy the play. I remember walking out into the snow, to the parking lot with my mother and saying, “I want to do that. That’s what I want to do,” and my mother was very casual, being my mother. She said, “Well, then you should do it,” which is a great answer when you think about it. It’s like, “Okay, that’s what you want to do then do it.” She must have already suspected because she took me to see the play, but Lorraine Hansberry, I think, is the one who made me understand that what I loved and admired about my father’s preaching could also happen in a secular environment with the same power and the same transformative energy that you get in church because I saw it in that play. We were such a one body after that play that it was just amazing to me.
Jordan: Yeah. I feel like you really hit specifically on Leticia, her favorite play is A Raisin in the Sun—
Pearl: It’s such a great play.
Jordan: —and obviously, we are huge fans of Lorraine.
Pearl: I think people—
Jordan: It’s so—
Pearl: —underestimate it, or they haven’t really interrogated it or they’re like, “Okay, that’s so old. We heard that during Black History Month,” or whatever it is. I think that play every time I read it and I go back and look at the movie, the first one. No disrespect to Puffy, but I go back and watch Sidney Poitier because the whole idea of those generational clashes with Beneatha wants to go to medical school and she wants to go to Africa and she wants to be a free woman, all of those. Watching her, it was so wonderful, and then watching the mother who you understand, but you also understand why as a young Black woman, she had to be in rebellion against that.
Even when her mother smacked her and said, “In my mother’s house, there is still God,” like, Oh Lord… that’s what happens when you sass your mother about her deep beliefs. But I think that place still continues to be one of the works that shaped everything I do. I think between that one and for colored girls…, it’s like that’s the bookends of my idea about what it means to be a Black playwright, a Black female playwright in America. Those two are just where I saw it and said, “Okay, okay. Work hard and maybe you can do that.”
Jordan: Yeah. I really appreciate you with those particular two texts, because those being foundational to your work, both in form and in style and in perspective, because one of the very reasons why we started Daughters of Lorraine and why we are both so inspired by your work is from this perspective of Black womanhood, Black feminism, womanism. So we’d love to know what brought you even beyond theatre or beyond the plays you saw, what brought you to just the ideologies of Black feminism and womanism? What do you think the function of those perspectives is within your work as a playwright, but also just largely when we’re talking about Black theatre?
Pearl: For me, I think that the evolution from being a person who was always raised around people who talked about race incessantly, I mean all the time, all the time. My family was Black nationalist and separatist in the sense of having no interest in integration, no interest in any of that, so that we were not like people who were trying to get five states or move from the United States somewhere else. My father’s idea was Black people were already separate, look at Detroit, look at Harlem, look at Watts, we are already separate. We can do these things. So I was used to being involved in a movement. I was used to looking at what it means to be oppressed on the basis of race and having no doubt at all that it was my responsibility to do something about that. There was no discussion of feminism in my house at all.
My father was a fairly patriarchal person, so that the idea that there was another struggle that should also be running parallel to what we were doing as Black folks didn’t come up. When I was at home, it came up after I got to be a woman in the world, and I got married and I really was so aware of the expectations that my first husband. And I say that like I’ve had twenty, but I only had two, that first one and the right one who is who I’m with now. But my first husband had expectations. It didn’t have anything to do with what I had presented, like being able to have a lovely dinner party and all that stuff. I didn’t know anything about that. I could write a well-made play.
That was a wifely skill so that the idea of, “Okay, now we’re going to spend every Saturday cleaning the house, and now we’re going to cook pasta from scratch from a recipe in the New York Times.” I was trying to do it. Because I thought that was what a wife should do, a good wife and all of that. I was still participating in all the civil rights activity, all the political activity that I knew, but that marriage structure was so such a tight little box for me that I really was not comfortable at all. I had a friend who was living with a man who was working with my husband and they were always pontificating about this and that and talking about what they were doing and all of that. We became friends because when they were doing all that, we would be talking to each other about what we were doing.
She was also a writer, so that it really became a function of a bedrock of our friendship to try to say, “Why are these relationships that we have, these very personal relationships, why do they seem so wrong in terms of what we believe about our lives and what we believe in terms of what it means to be free, what it means to be a writer, what it means to be a woman in the world?” So I read a lot, I read a lot of poetry. I had read a lot of theory. I talked to my friend incessantly. Atlanta had a feminist bookstore, which is still one of the few feminist bookstores in the United States—Charis Books, that’s right—and actually got to read poetry. The two of us, me and my friend, we both read poetry at the opening of Charis, but it was just a hub for all of us who were trying to figure it out, and a lot of us had kids at the time.
We were also trying to be mothers, so Charis had a little place where your kid could play, and you could be trying to find these feminist books you were looking for. So it was a community of people, which is what I’m always looking for, a community of people of like mine. So we began to really see these ideas that we had reflected in our writing. I’d also realized more and more that I couldn’t buy into something that was not allowing me to be as free as I could be, that it wasn’t just race that I had to deal with, I also had to deal with gender. I remember I used to give speeches and things, and I would say, “I have two states of emergency, racial and gender, and gender is my secondary thing and race is my primary state of emergency.”
I heard myself say it one time, and I said, “That is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. Like Black on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, a woman on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and you get Sunday off? What does that even mean?” It was like a thunder clap to me. I said, “Oh, my God. I’m still trying to please the Black men that I admire, the Black men in my life, the movement guys with saying, ‘Well, your struggle is more important,’“ and defining racial struggle as their struggle and saying, “Yours is more important than ours,” as opposed to saying, “Both of these should be our struggles. You should be as informed and as committed to what I’m talking about as a feminist as I am to what we’re talking about, about race.”
So I didn’t get very far with that talking to most of the men that I knew, but it was very important to me, because after that I refused to separate. I was like, “No, I’m not going to be Black or female. I’m going to be a Black woman every day. Every issue is going to come through that, and if it offends either one of those things that are a part of me, I’m not doing it.” That was very liberating to me, because I no longer had to have that moment of, “Am I betraying the race by dealing with the gender?” It’s not possible, not possible. They’re all right there together.”
Leticia: Yeah. I love what you’re speaking about, these intersections, and I think it’s really reflected in your work, from Flyin’ West to A Song for Coretta, for Angry, Raucous, and Shamelessly Gorgeous, your newest work. There’s this idea that gender and race are constantly a part of the conversation, and we see the characters grappling with that simultaneously as they always exist in a community. So there’s not these isolated characters that are just trying to figure out life and their own identity alone. So can you just speak to a bit about what I see as a larger intention to center Black women in many of your plays?
Pearl: Well, I always do it, and I think the answer is really because I am one. I want to see work where I’m at the center of it. I want to see plays where I’m at the center of it, and not necessarily always bouncing off of a husband or a lover or a leader or somebody, but just a Black woman who is like the women that I know.
I’m disappointed in some of the films and some of the plays that we will do as Black women, because I know very sophisticated, smart, interesting women, and when they write, they will only write a trauma narrative. They will only talk about terrible things that may never have happened to them, and are certainly legitimate subjects to be written about. But I always ask them, “Why don’t you write something about you? “Why don’t you write something about a woman who’s thinking the things you’re thinking or doing?” I think there’s a class question that comes into it where people feel like they have to become someone different when they create the characters that they create, and I don’t think that’s true. I think that the story that you’re trying to tell has to determine who these characters are, and because the characters are middle class, middle income characters doesn’t mean that they have to be snobby and color struck and obnoxious. They can still be revolutionary women who are moving about the world. So I think that that’s the thing I’m always trying to do is make the characters as real as they can be.
Jordan: It also seems, too, that within the plays that we just listed and other works you’ve written as well that there’s an intergenerational conversation that often happens, that we get these women who are at different stages in their lives, but who are trying to figure out something together, whether that’s feminist politics, like in your most recent play, or that’s how to save Nicodemus, Kansas in Flyin’ West or… in whatever it is, there seems to be generations of women coming together and wrestling with a lot of these issues. I’m curious about why that is a recurring theme within your work, and the importance of seeing those conversations happen and play out on the stage, and what you might hope an audience or a reader might gain from seeing and engaging with those conversations?
Pearl: I think conversations between generations, and I’m sure it’s true for men as well, but I know for women they’re so crucial in terms of the information that you need as a woman to move through the world, from how to braid your hair, to all the other things, birth control, whatever it is, you’re usually going to get that information from women who are a little older than you are. If you have a progressive, open-minded mother, you might get a lot of those lessons from her; same could be true of your grandmother. It could be an aunt, could be whoever it is, but those conversations, I think, are missing in the lives of many young Black women because we’re so mobile now. It used to be, you would grow up in one place. Your grandparents were also there. Your aunts were also there so that there would be gatherings where you would naturally hear these kinds of conversations and participate in these kinds of conversations.
Many of us don’t have that now because we’ve gone places to do other things and we don’t live close enough to foster those kinds of conversations. But I always love doing that kind of work in the plays.
What would Miss Leah say to Minnie? What would this one say to that one? It’s funny, because with a play like Flyin’ West, I wrote that play in 1992, and Miss Leah was really old to me. She was trying to find her cane and all that, and now I have arthritis in my knee. I have to buy my cane. So it’s like, “Oh, my God. I have changed generations in the process of encountering my own work,” which is really what Angry, Raucous, and Shamelessly Gorgeous is about. When you realize that you are no longer the bright, young wiz kid, that you are now the elder, and we have various responses to that because this is not a culture, not a society that is kind to older women at all.
I know many people fight against that. They cut up their faces and they dress weird and they’re hope that maybe they can pretend that they’re still thirty, and it never works. They just look like they’re sixty-five and weird. It doesn’t help. But I think that the whole idea of those women in Angry, Raucous, and Shamelessly Gorgeous that Anna at sixty-five coming up against a young woman at twenty-five who was going to do the role that made Anna famous. And Anna is not happy about that at all, at all, and so she says some really mean things. She’s like, “You’re just this, and you’re not worthy,” and all of that kind of stuff. What she has to come to is of course, she’s worthy. Of course, she is able to do something with that role that might not have occurred to Anna because of the forty years difference between them, and that that can be respected. That can be helpful.
Anna can infuse her conversation with the wisdom that made that piece come about and they can, as they do at the end of the play, realize that they can love each other and talk together and help each other with one being twenty-five and one being sixty-five. They can help each other be that age and do the work that they’re trying to do. So it always, I think, comes about as all the things do in my plays, because I’m trying to answer questions for myself. I feel like if something is driving me crazy, there’s a fairly good chance it’s driving some other women crazy too, so that if I can write it in a way where they can see the question in there, then it’s very helpful.
A lot of women came to see Angry, Raucous… with their mothers or with their granddaughters, which was so wonderful for me to realize that that play actually generated the kind of conversations that I was writing about. That’s where you have to go home and drink a glass of champagne and say, “I could get good at this if I keep doing it,” Because when it works, there’s nothing like writing a play and having people in the audience lean forward. That’s what we always want, where they’re not like, “Oh God, is it time to go?” But where they’re actually, they don’t want to miss anything, so they’re leaning into what you’re doing and that when you can see it and watch them leave the theatre talking to each other about the play. You can’t get that with a novel. You can’t get that with a poem because we’re not all there together, but in theatre, if you do it right, there’s nothing like it.
Leticia: It’s that magic.
Pearl: Yeah, it is. It really is.
Leticia: It’s that magic and being an audience member and wanting to lean forward, wanting to turn to who you’re sitting with and be like, “Oh, my God. Did you see what was going on?” I feel like that’s like Black communal, I don’t know, like I pause to say magic again, but something specifically when I see theatre with other Black folks that is just generated in the room.
Leticia: When I was reading Angry, Raucous and Shamelessly Gorgeous, I kept thinking about my own grandma who I was raised by, and our relationship and that tension that you capture with Anna and Pete, in this like, “Okay, now there’s this media thing that’s going on,” or, “This is how my feminist politics is different than yours and how it’s grown and how it’s been stretched.” Even though we might not necessarily see eye-to-eye with everything, we can come to a sense of understanding or a sense of me passing the baton or helping guide you back to this community piece that you spoke about earlier that I really, really loved when I was reading it. I was so sad because I knew it was supposed to come to Arena Stage in DC, and the—
Pearl: The pandemic. But life is long. I think it’ll find its way back.
Leticia: Speaking of that play, I was curious with the choice Black theatre and August Wilson are often synonymous. You say Black theatre, you say, “August.” I feel like that’s like Raisin in the Sun, that’s August Wilson. I remember seeing the announcement by the Arena about your play and being like, “Oh, August Wilson, Naked Wilson. Wow. We’re going there.” Can you just talk a bit about largely this idea of Black theatre as a concept and some of the figureheads that we have and who rises to the top? What you’re trying to do in the work with, frankly, what I see as posing the question of why someone like August Wilson has become this figurehead of what we call Black theatre, or white mainstream theatres being like, “All we can do is an August Wilson play ever.”
Pearl: Right. I think that I came of age at the time when those plays were new work, and it was like everybody was talking about August Wilson, talking about August Wilson—especially the Black men in theatre, who were the ones who were the producers, who were deciding what went on at New Federal, what went on at the Negro Ensemble Company. I have great respect for these brothers, really great respect. I’ve had some great conversations with them where they were like, “Will you stop talking about that feminist stuff. This is not a Black thing that you should be talking about and all of that,” but the idea that August plays were so wonderful that you couldn’t critique them in any way set in fairly quickly. I think part of the reason was that white theatres embraced that work so quickly, so then it became almost like you’re just trying to tear the brother down if you critiqued their work.
I don’t care about that. I think they’re great plays.I think they’re amazingly written, and I think that a lot of the conversations that the people have in these plays, the dialogue in these plays is so real that you have to just say, “Oh, my God. That sounds just like my uncles. That sounds just like the barbershop,” and I love all of that. At the same time, the women characters are so much thinner than the male characters most of the time. My favorite August Wilson play is Fences. I love the scene where Rose is saying, “You take up all the air in the room. You don’t leave any space for me,” because Troy is such a big character. I think that that’s actually true of most of August Wilson’s plays, that the men take up all the air in this space, because he was a man, and he was not a feminist man. So the idea that August and Robert Hooks and Woodie King and all of the wonderful men who were doing this work would embrace him. He was their contemporary. He was their guy.
He was really kicking ass in American theatre, so that those of us pulling on their coats saying, “But we wish the women could be stronger, and we’re writing plays too. Can we also have a play in that season?” It was like, “Mm, we’re not really thinking about that,” but we talked about it a lot. Actresses talked about it. Writers talked about it, directors, we talked about it, because of course you’re a Black person in theatre, you’re going to talk about August Wilson. You must come up against August Wilson for good or not good to do it so that those conversations, which were so important to our development as Black women writers and important because we are a part of the American theatre, important to the American theatre, those conversations were invisible. Nobody outside of the Black women who were talking about it knew about it. White people didn’t know that there were any Black feminist women critiquing August Wilson. How could they? Where would they hear that critique?
They weren’t looking for it because they weren’t aware of it. It didn’t occur to them that everyone did not embrace and love and affirm every part of these plays. So really, when I started thinking about Angry, Raucous… I wanted Anna to have done something wild and radical and revolutionary in reaction to wanting more from those plays. She wasn’t even talking so much about wanting Black women writers, she wanted more from those plays. She was bumping up against August so that her idea of, “I’m going to juxtapose the fact of I am a woman with what these guys are saying, and I’m going to make you think about it, because I’m going to just stand here naked and do all of Troy Max’s fabulous speeches.” So when I thought of that, I thought, “That would’ve been such a great idea if someone had actually done it, so that’s the beauty of being able to be a writer then you can make that happen. Although that never happened, it’s always lovely for me when people think that really happened and they missed it.
When we did it here, the costumer was like, “Are there any photographs of the costume so that I can see it?” I said, “That never happened at all.” The Black Theatre Festival would’ve died if someone had done something like that about August Wilson. I love the Black Theatre Festival, but that would’ve been what happened, probably would’ve been what happened, which is people would’ve wrapped her in a blanket and rushed her off the stage, locked her in the green room, all those things. So, the idea that we could have been so invested in our idea of our place in theatre to do a piece like this was so appealing to me, because I know that was something we talked about. Also, the ability in the play for me to add to the American theatrical cannon, a conversation that was critical to me as a Black woman, but that nobody knew outside of Black women to say, “Oh no, you have to, you have to know that this happened, this took place.”
The thing is that Anna, at the end of that, well, at the beginning when they’re talking, Anna and Betty, and Anna says, “I do think we were that interesting, don’t you that we could have made the boys take a look at us?” She says, “I think we were fabulous. We were stars in the sky. We were everything, and I think we still are.” Then at the end, so that that’s like, that was part of what they were dealing with. Then when you get to the end and she says, “I really wasn’t mad at August, but as an actor, I wanted to feel those words in my mouth. I wanted to feel that in my mouth, and I wanted to feel everything about it, which is why I had to take off my clothes,” which is like, “Okay, we got the radical revolutionary reason, but we also got as an actor, she wanted to say those speeches, which are so wonderful.” I have a lot of friends who are actors, so I know they are always wanting the sensual pleasure of the words.
So I thought that being able to take the politics of that piece and also deal with the actor desiring to embrace in a very physical sexual almost way, the language, because it’s so beautiful and round in your mouth, that all of that we don’t get to talk about ourselves in complicated ways all the time. Sometimes we will stop at the point of saying, “We’re mad at August Wilson,” as opposed to saying, “Let’s look at how we really feel about that. We’re not just mad, we’re really in love with what we are trying to give. We love the beauty of that language, just like everybody, and we want to also let Rose have something to say from the top of the Margaret Mitchell House. We want all of that.” So that play was a real pleasure to me because I want to make sure that we have a voice moving forward so that young women, and you’re very young to me, young women like you will not only have the plays, but you will understand the critique that was going on about the people who made those plays.
So you’ll know that we actually did have those conversations, drinking wine and saying, “Oh, why can’t this and why can’t that?” And nobody’s going to do it if we don’t do it. We have to have the dialogue, the things that are concern to us as part of the major voices in American theatre and not just, “We’re mad at white people. We’re mad at white people.” It’s like, “If there’s no white people in the room, then what do we talk about?” which was always my thing growing up in all-Black neighborhoods, all-Black schools, it’s like I always say to white people, “The thing is we don’t always talk about y’all. We’re not always worried about you. We’re not always wondering, ‘Are you going to beat us up? Are you going to jail us?’ and all that. Sometimes we talk about love. Sometimes we talk about work. Sometimes we talk about whatever human beings talk about. You are not the center of every conversation in the world,” but they think they are, so they continue to produce those plays where they’re at the center. They continue to think that that’s the story because we keep telling it to them, because we want to get produced. We want to make a living, but it’s like, I think the interesting thing is going to be moving forward, how much we can move away from that into simply telling the stories we want to tell and assume those stories are strong enough and connect it to other human beings enough that anybody will want to see it in the same way that I love Ibsen. I can imagine someone who is Norwegian loving the work that we do as Black women in this country, because we’re human. We write about human stuff.
Jordan: Yeah. I love the focus, the intracommunal conversations that you’re interested in, in fostering and the themes of love and things that don’t necessarily have to do with racial trauma, and also your interest in history is something that is very striking to both of us. I feel like as I’m getting these wonderfully rich, complex, nuanced Black characters, I’m also getting such a slice of history in all of the work that you produce. So I’m curious about your interest in history and why that is appealing to you. Also, when you say, I know that your career in theatre has been with Black theatres focusing primarily on submitting your work to Black theatres and how do you feel that being in those environments has also supported that perspective that you bring on history?
Pearl: I’m a person who, I get most of my history through stories. My husband can name all the wars, chronological order, all the presidents in chronological order. My mind so does not work that way. So it’s like the history that I get, I get from stories from plays, from novels, and I’ve always been that way so that there are periods that are of great interest to me, not necessarily because I want to write a history play, but because Harlem Renaissance has always been so appealing to me. I wish I had been there. Then so when I wrote Blues for an Alabama Sky, I was thinking about the Renaissance, but then I said, “We always kind of glory in the Renaissance. What happened right after that? What happened when the stock market crashed?” But it grew out of my interest in the Harlem Renaissance, same thing with Flyin’ West.
The idea of setting off from the South with a wagon train full of Black folks because you’re not going to stay in the Confederacy no matter what is like, I can’t imagine the courage that it took to do something like that. So that the periods are really something that will be a period that I’m already interested in, and then I have to find the story, who’s in there moving around? What are they doing? But the Black theatres, most of the beginning of my career as a writer was when I was doing what you’re talking about. There were many more Black theatres at that time, and I would just send the script and say, “I’m a playwright. Here’s my play. I wish y’all would do it.” So many of the smaller ones would write back and say, “Wow, we love this play, but we don’t have any money, so I guess we can’t do it.” I would say, well, but you do work somewhere, right? You do have lights on when you do your shows and all of that?”
They would say, “Yes,” and I said, “Well, you have some money. What we are talking about is you don’t have a lot of money. So how about send me $25 and five copies of the program, then I can prove that I’m a working playwright. I can begin to build a portfolio.” They’ll be like, “Wow, $25. Okay. We can do that.” So that what I was trying to do was to get the plays in front of people, get the theatres to understand that they could have a relationship with a playwright where they could work out what the fair exchange of funds should be, but that they had to want to do that. I’ve never had any conscious, “Okay, now I’m working for Black theatre, so I’m going to write about Black history.” I haven’t really thought of it that way, and actually most of the plays that I wrote before I’d started working with Kenny Leon at the Alliance Theatre, most of them were contemporary.
They were set right now, the plays that I wrote for Just Us Theatre when I was in residence there for five years, and the plays were contemporary. They were taking place right now. But then when I had an idea about Flyin’ West, I actually had the only mystical experience I’ve ever had with a play where I was driving down the freeway, and I heard Miss Leah’s voice so real in my head that I thought someone had gotten in my car while it was in the parking lot and I hadn’t seen her. I turned around to see if there was somebody talking and she was talking about how after slavery all her children had died and how she set off walking West, and if she had wings, she’d set off flyin’ west. I’m saying to myself, “First of all, I’m losing my mind. Second of all, I’m driving on the Atlanta freeways and I’m not a good driver, so that’s not good.” But the third thing is, “That’s a great line. I need to pull off the freeway and write that down.”
So I pulled off the freeway, pulled into a parking lot in an apartment building and wrote down what Miss Leah was saying to me. That’s the only reason I ever ended up with Nicodemus, Kansas, because when I looked at what she was talking about, I said, “Wow, how can I make this contemporary?” Because it’s a lot easier to write a play about what’s going on in your own life right now, so I’m saying “Nicodemus, Kansas? I don’t know anything about Black folks going West. I don’t know about exodusers. I don’t know about any of that. Maybe I can make her really, really old.” I said, “Come on. That’s cheap. You can’t do that. How old can she be that she’s still in Atlanta talking about things and that’s not where she wanted to be?” Whatever put that voice in my head, and I’ve never had that experience before or since, but whatever spirit wanted to talk about those ancestors had no interest in contemporary in Atlanta. She wanted to be in Nicodemus, Kansas, so I had to go read all this stuff about Nicodemus, Kansas.
So I had to educate myself and read letters home. Women wrote a lot of letters home, diaries, there was all that stuff, really, really rich material. I realized that a lot of the things they were writing about had to do with isolation and abuse. They were living way out from anybody else so that if their husbands or the men around them were treating them badly, there was nobody to call for help. I’m thinking to myself, “This is exactly like people, women today having to deal with abusive situations. How do you get help? Who can help you, and what do you have the right to do in response to that abuse?” The play has what my response is: feed them that poison pie, bury them under the ground, and keep it moving.
But the idea that that grew out of my actually doing the necessary research for that, and then being able to say, “Well, I’m not shoehorning this in, these women are actually writing about this so that it’s legitimate for me to put a story in that has it,” that was a great pleasure to me. I really enjoyed how that play evolved, but that’s the only one where anyone made me go somewhere. The Harlem Renaissance, I wanted to go there. Bourbon at the Border, I know a lot of movement people who were destroyed by the racism in bigotry that they encountered, so that a lot of the plays that are contemporary are still things that I know myself, but the other ones are, what am I drawn to? What period would I like to move around in and see what that would be? Because it allows you to put yourself places where you can’t be otherwise.
Pearl: What was it like to be Angel? What was it like to be Guy? What was it like to be all of those people and realize in blues that they were dealing with contraception, that the Garveyites were saying, “That is genocide. No Black women should be using contraception. We should be having as many babies as we can.” So it’s like when you look sometimes there’s issues that women have been dealing with for generations, but they haven’t shown up in the literature because men are writing the plays. Men are writing the novels, and they have different issues that they’re dealing with. But for me, if I can be reading about another period and just see it bump up against the issues that we are dealing with now as women, it’s just wonderful, because then you can bring that conversation into the light where it’s only been in the smaller spaces that we inhabit when it’s just us.
Leticia: I love that. I don’t have a question, but your dialogue, as the young folks say, be hitting it. Your dialogue is so rich. Sometimes when I’m reading your work or I assign it in class, I have to just make sure we read it out loud, like you said, at the beginning. The spoken word, there’s something just so powerful, about living in your mouth and you hearing the lushness of the language, and I love it. I just, fangirling for a bit about your dialogue.
Pearl: That’s what I enjoy the most is, that is, I love, plot is always very hard for me. It’s like left to my own devices, I would just have people moving around on the stage talking to each other, no plot, but you can’t do that. You must have story. You must have all of that stuff, but even as a little kid growing up in Detroit, riding the bus with my sister and I would be eight-years-old, she’s two years older, so ten and eight, we could take the bus. Then we would be riding, and I had a little notebook and I would write down the conversations that we were hearing on the bus. My sister would always be so concerned that someone would realize what I was doing and freak out that I’m writing what they’re... but a little Black girl, eight-years-old, I’m invisible. They don’t care about what I’m doing.
The thing that struck me even as a child was the beauty of the language of people just talking to each other, and the fact that men didn’t talk much on the bus at all. Women talked incessantly on the bus, and what did they talk about? Nine times out of ten, men. They talked about men. If my mother had ever found those notebooks where I was writing down what these grown women were saying, she probably would’ve said, “You can never take the bus again.” It was just listening to my father talk, listening to the people at the bus, listening to any people talking, talking. People go crazy when they have to wait in line somewhere for something. As long as there’s somebody talking, I can stand there all day to just see what it is that they’re talking about, and how do they say it? I used to drive my daughter crazy. My daughter likes to shop, so she would drag me to the mall. We’d be walking through the mall, and I would see somebody and say, “I wonder where she’s going. I wonder if she’s thinking about ... “
My daughter would be like, “We are looking for shoes today. We are not doing stories today,” so I would just be thinking it like, “I wonder what he’s thinking when he did that, when he jerked his little kid like that? I wonder what made him behave in that way?” But I think that’s the big advantage, I think, that I have as a writer because I came here writing. I’ve always told stories. As a two-year-old child, I was telling stories to my four-year-old sister so that I never had a moment where I didn’t have that desire to tell stories, to hear stories, to make up characters and move them through a story. What are they going to do? I used to walk through a little, it wasn’t an orchard because I was in Detroit, but it was like a vacant lot that had crabapple trees. It was between the major sidewalk and my elementary school.
So I walked through it every morning and I would stop at the edge of this little crabapple orchard and say to myself, “And now the continuing adventures of Pearl Cleage, girl school child,” and then I would go to school. So I saw my own life as a story, and I was a kid. I was like seven or eight-years-old, but it was like, I was the character moving through the day. I would look at myself, moving through the day, look at my classmates moving through the day, and I think that’s just some people come here knowing what it is. It’s just in you when you get here and you don’t have to search for it, it’s there and you’re lucky enough to find it. I think I’m in that group where I knew it and my family was able to nurture it and my community was able to nurture it. Then I went to Howard University and Spelman College, so I was always around Black people who wanted me to tell what I knew, tell the story, tell it.
If you can tell it in a way where people can embrace it, and I thank you for saying that about the dialogue, if they hear themselves on that stage, they’ll be there all day, because I know I do it. When I saw for colored girls…, it was so like having a conversation with all the women that I knew and the conversation with myself in my own head that I started crying about ten minutes into that show. I cried the whole time, like where you had to be quiet, trying to make yourself not be silent, not because I mean some bad things happened in that place, certainly at the end but it was the finally seeing these contemporary, fearless, sexual, alive Black women talk about their lives. I was at the Alliance Theatre, which had an overwhelmingly white audience at that time, and these white women were not feeling that play at all. It was just like I blocked them out totally. I was in communion with those women on the stage, and it didn’t matter if I had been in there all by myself, they were doing something I had never seen on the stage before, and I love Ntozake.
We got to be friends, but I owe her so much. I know she was tired toward the end of her life about people only talking about that one work, “Oh, we love for colored girls. But it was like, I understand why they feel that way because it changed my life. So you don’t want to just make the person only have written one thing, but I think that her willingness at great cost to herself to always tell the truth about things that we try not to talk about, I think that that is something that pushes all of us to do more, to tell more, to be more accurate about what we say, because she did that in a way that was like an explosion among my generation of Black women playwrights like, “Whoa. Okay. That means we have to cut out all the bullshit. We can’t do that anymore, because this is like, ‘Okay, I’m telling the truth. Are y’all going to tell the truth?’“ We either had to say yay or nay. Knowing me, I’m like, “Yes, yes. I’m scared, but I’m going to do it. I’m going to do it,” because it’s scary to tell the truth all the time, but you got to do it. This is the life we’ve chosen.
Jordan: Yeah. I love that you’ve uplifted one of your contemporaries, and something that we do here on every episode of Daughters of Lorraine is that we provide people with other things to engage after they listen to the episode to continue the conversation, either with us or with others in their community, or how wherever want to take this knowledge. So we wanted to open up before we close to you about if there’s anything you wanted to uplift, anything that’s been on your mind, anything you’ve been engaging, whether that’s a play or anything else otherwise, we’d love to hear anything that’s been like, I don’t know?
Pearl: When I realized you all were going to ask me this, I actually wrote this down because there are so many things that I want to say, “And they should be this and this and this.” It’s like, “Okay, so this is what I guess the five things that just really came through to me and getting ready to talk to you. One is, for colored girls, just read it. You can see it if you can, but read it, read it, read it; The Mountaintop, Katori Hall’s piece, which I think is an amazing, truthful, wonderful play that humanizes Martin Luther King and also makes him exactly the amazing, blessed creature that he was in such a lovely way. I saw a production here at True Colors Theatre. At the end of that play, everybody was completely silent, we just were so moved by it, so I think that’s a great one. Raisin in the Sun, certainly, to read it also the 1961 film, to look at it; then the documentary about her, Lorraine Hansberry, Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart, which is a 2017 film by Tracy Heather Strain about Lorraine.
But I think that Black women have so much to say, and we say it to each other often, and now we’re able to say it to a wider circle of us, and then to people beyond the circle of just us who are interested in good work, who are interested in good work by human beings whatever their race, whatever their gender tell me about the complexity of being human. I want us as Black women to always be a part of that dialogue, talking about what it means specifically to be human and be us. If we can do that, I think that’s the work that we came to do. I thank you so much for doing the work that you’re doing and for talking about these things, for thinking about these things, for making your grandmothers proud by doing stuff they probably never thought of doing themselves, but we are so happy when we see those generations move forward and push it and do every single thing that needs to be done to keep the work that we all love alive and well and vibrant in the American theatre, so I thank you for that.
Jordan: Thank you. We would not do the work that we do without the work you’ve done. I’m from Atlanta, so I’ve always heard your name circulating and seen your work, and so it’s just been an honor to be in conversation with you as someone who’s just inspired me in my trajectory so much. I know Leticia feels the same.
Leticia: Yes, echoing everything that Jordan said, and thank you. Thank you for everything you shared with us today on Daughters of Lorraine. I feel like you just gave me so much as I move forward. I feel like we were modeling a lot of what you’re doing in your own work and so it’s such a pleasure. It’s such a pleasure to be in conversation with you, and thank you. Thank you so much for accepting our invitation to be on Daughters of Lorraine.
Pearl: Thank you.
Leticia: As a daughter of Lorraine yourself—
Pearl: That’s right. We are her daughters, yes we are. Thank you so much.
Jordan: All right. We will see you all next week. Thank you for listening to this episode.
Leticia: Thank you. This has been another episode of Daughters of Lorraine. We’re your hosts, Leticia Ridley—
Jordan: —and Jordan Ealey. On our next episode, we’re discussing reproductive justice and freedom in Black theatre, so you definitely won’t want to miss that. In the meantime, if you’re looking to connect with us, please follow us on Twitter @DOLorrainePod, P-O-D. You can also email us at [email protected] for further contact.
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