Calling in the Spirits

How Theatre Can Help Us Tell the Truth

This piece is an edited version of the speech Pearl Cleage gave at the TYA/USA Festival and Conference in Atlanta, Georgia in May 2019.

Way back in 1991, playwright Terrence McNalley said, “If you don’t believe that the theatre has the ability to make us better people—and by ‘better’ I mean more caring, more informed, more passionately committed human beings—then there is going to be very little dialogue between us.”

I love that quote more every time I read it. I love the expansive, open-ended, all-inclusive nature of it. He’s talking about humans, about entering fully into the international flow of ideas and culture because that is where we will find our shared stories, our overlapping narratives, our global community. He’s talking about trying to save the planet by believing, against all odds and evidence to the contrary, that most people are good.

At the heart of what we love about the theatre is that it is a ritual, an ancient calling forth of spirits, a cleansing, a catharsis, a baptism in laughter or in tears that brings us closer to our fragile, flawed, fabulous, shimmering selves—to our common story. And there’s no other way to tell it except this one ancient exchange that began as we huddled together around the camp fire, whispering the tales of sheroism and heroism, and tenderness and resilience, that would bind us, and find us, all these centuries later, still gathering together in the growing darkness as the house goes to half and we turn our attention to the stage with the hope of seeing ourselves, warts and all, but always holding out for the possibility of redemption.

It is my feeling that what we do as artists, and as theatre artists specifically, has never been more critical to the survival of our nation and our world.

And I’m not talking about happy endings, neatly tied with a bow—although I am a fan of exactly those kinds of endings when the story you are telling leads you there. I’m talking about an ending that in some small way puts forward the unshakeable idea that we are, without a doubt, complicated beings who can be counted upon to do the wrong thing as much as we ever do the right one, but we never stop trying and we never tire of watching our surrogate doppelgangers from Actor’s Equity show us how we look as we go about that all-too-human task of separating right from wrong, as the wheat from the chafe, because when we who have chosen this life do it right, the people who have trusted us with two hours of their precious lives cheer and weep and head out to the parking lot refreshed, revitalized, renewed.

And not a moment too soon! It is my feeling that what we do as artists, and as theatre artists specifically, has never been more critical to the survival of our nation and our world. Our stories of right and wrong and good and evil and hope and despair—our stories of what it means to be truly deeply human in all our terribleness—those stories are at the heart of what holds us together in these strange, strange days, as a community, as a nation, as a great big beautiful world.

If the current political dialogue shows us anything at all, it is the need for better communication at the highest levels about the issues that really matter, like sane immigration policies and clean water and affordable housing and universal health care and good public education and peace at home and abroad. What we need are leaders who can identify a problem and propose a real-world solution without name-calling, who can shape a public discourse that has, at its vibrant center, an unwavering commitment to truth.

We’ll talk more about that in a minute, but first, a little personal history…

I graduated from high school in 1966. It was quite a year. US forces in Vietnam hovered at 185,000. Stokely Carmichael was named chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and promptly uttered the words “Black Power” from the back of a flatbed truck on a Mississippi highway and changed the course of the civil rights movement forever. Julian Bond was denied a seat in the Georgia House of Representatives because of his opposition to the war in Vietnam, which Martin Luther King had already denounced as a “sordid military adventure.”

The America that had twice elected Dwight D. Eisenhower president was gone forever. Change was in the air, the voice of the people was carried on the wind, all things were possible, and I was a first-year playwriting student at Howard University, away from my mother’s watchful eye for the first time, drunk on my sudden independence and that peculiar sixties energy that made those of us who came of age during those days actually believe that we could make love and make revolution and still get the grades we needed to keep our scholarships and prepare ourselves to assume our rightful place within the vanguard as members of the class of 1970.

We were dragging our parents kicking and screaming into the next phase of our collective national life. Is it any wonder that as a writer I embraced fully the African American literary tradition that requires both activism and aesthetic excellence, the tradition that Amiri Baraka says required that we write something so baaaaad they have to ban it? But to many young people, those days of activism and advancement are ancient history, its tactics and lessons relics of another time and a very different place.

If I had any doubts about this, they were effectively put to rest when I picked up a copy of the Atlanta Journal Constitution and found a front-page story about what the paper called “the next generation of activists.” Being a lifelong activist myself for whom movements were like mother’s milk, I welcomed a chance to meet the young people who were gathering under the umbrella of Black Lives Matter to become an active part of the ongoing struggle to make America a country where there truly is liberty and justice for all. It did not go well.

“This is not your granddaddy’s civil rights movement,” said Mary Hooks, thirty-three, an organizer of the Atlanta Black Lives Matter chapter. “We’re not sitting around waiting for someone in a suit to come save us.”

a group of Black youth and adults stand onstage while one youth speaks into a megaphone

A scene from Off the Page's staged reading of All American Boys at the 2019 TYA/USA Festival & Conference in Atlanta. Photo by Sara Keith Studios.

The article went on to talk to other activists, but I couldn’t get Mary’s words out of my head. “This is not your granddaddy’s civil rights movement.” Now I’m not quite old enough to be Mary’s grandmother, but I’m close enough to know she was talking about me. She was talking about the people I met as passionate revolutionaries, often dressed in Dashikis or overalls, who were, by the time she met them, respectable old men in suits and bespectacled women in sensible shoes who liked to talk about the good old days when Martin and Malcolm and Medgar walked the earth and they were young and strong and fearless. I felt the space between generations—the space between us—in a way I never had before and I didn’t like it one bit.

Being old is like when Sly and the Family Stone are singing “Dance to the Music,” and Sly’s little brother, Freddie, says, “Cynthia and Jerry got a message that’s sayin’…” And Cynthia says, “All the squares go home!” Now nobody who loves that song ever thinks they might be the squares she’s talking about. That’s what being old is like. The idea that we might actually be old is a thought we beat back with every once of our being until one day the years cannot be denied and there is more behind than in front and you realize you don’t want to learn what an “app” is, and the idea of Snapchat makes you break out in a cold sweat… And not in a good way. And suddenly “All the squares go home” means you!

When you’re young, you don’t worry much about communicating with an older generation unless they are in a position to grade you, or cast you, or offer you that dream job that pays well, satisfies your soul, and makes your grandmother so proud of you she can’t stop smiling. Otherwise, the older generation is presumed to be on the opposite side of most issues. Frightened by the future, dismissive of your concerns, quick to take over the conversation. Unwilling to listen.

The young people, tired of being told to go slow or how we did it first and did it better, begin to tune us out. I remember that feeling. It was my generation that said “Don’t trust anyone over thirty” and meant it, so I do not take it personally if it is difficult for young people to listen deeply to those of us for whom thirty is a distant memory. So that is our challenge, yours and mine. We have to find a way to bridge that gap, to communicate honestly across all those years because our world and our country are in crisis and somebody has got to fix it and if not us, who? And if not now, when?

But I am a realist. I know there are undeniable obstacles and behaviors on both sides that those on the other side find difficult to deal with. Among the annoying things some old people will do when they talk to young people is mention their age all the time and then tell them it doesn’t matter. Of course it does! That’s not a value judgment. There is no “older and therefore wiser” implied. It’s simply a fact. Living sixty years is different than living twenty years, and if you’ve paid attention and kept your wits about you, you have probably seen some things worth seeing, been some things worth being, and learned some lessons worth passing on.

We have to find a way to bridge that gap, to communicate honestly across all those years because our world and our country are in crisis and somebody has got to fix it and if not us, who? And if not now, when?

At least this is the hope. Perhaps that is why we are so anxious to give them advice. Or perhaps it is because time is short and we want them to be ready for the not-too-far off future when the machines fail us and the environment reminds us in the most forceful terms that it’s not nice to take Mother Nature for granted and the world as we know it changes into a place we no longer recognize—a place where we scribble our secrets on scraps of paper, smuggled from hand to hand until they are worn and smudged beyond recognition and we must recite the words from memory, whispering them to each other like the prayers our grandmothers taught us to pray. Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my Soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my Soul to take. Whispering in the soft, sweet darkness of nights we thought would never end. But they do…

Of course, they are free to evaluate any advice based on whether it makes sense to them or not. But before they decide, I hope they will consider that it is a love offering, a peace offering, a sometimes-desperate effort to be useful, to be relevant, to pass on all those hard-earned lessons when they turn their faces toward us, reluctantly, trapped in classrooms or church pews or lecture halls, when they sigh and say: “Okay, tell us what you know.”

And even though we’ve been waiting for them to ask, it usually takes us a minute to decide how much we are prepared to reveal about the complexity of the journey from whence those lessons emerged. It’s hard not to sanitize and analyze and minimize when you tell the story of your own life. We remember the high points. The moments of sacrifice and noble choices and personal victories. But we are less apt to want to share the details of the messiness that often accompanies the arrival of life-changing truths in those breakthrough moments when you step forward and spread your arms like that small child set down in front of the ocean for the first time, trying to grasp just the idea of it. The endless blue of it. The absolute shimmering essence of it. All of it. In that moment, we are sometimes reluctant to tell them the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

A few years ago, I tried to whittle down everything I’ve learned over the course of my life into ten pieces of good advice that I could pass on to hopeful young people who asked me. They weren’t complicated ideas and I run through them here only because the reaction I got to Number 10 surprised me. Here they are:

  1. Work hard.
  2. Love harder.
  3. Eat your vegetables.
  4. Travel light.
  5. Pay cash.
  6. Be kind.
  7. Buy time, not stuff.
  8. Bring your own birth control.
  9. Register and vote in every election.
  10. Don’t lie, ever.

To my great surprise, the only one of my top ten that ever makes people hesitate is number ten: don’t lie, ever. They compliment me on one through nine and then immediately begin to propose exceptions to number ten. “Well, what if this…” and “What if that….” Some even went so far as to conjure up the final monologue of Ntozake Shange’s masterpiece, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf, and asked me if I wouldn’t have lied to keep Beau Willie from dropping his children out of the window. So, for the record, if you are ever in the unspeakable position of having to negotiate with a psychopath in an effort to save innocent people, lie without ceasing and any higher power worthy of the name surely will forgive you. Always save the babies!

five women of color in colorful dresses

Aku Kadogo, Risë Collins, Trazana Beverly (front), Laurie Carlos, Seret Scott, and Paula Moss in Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf. For Colored Girls opened on Broadway at the Booth Theatre September 15, 1976. Photo by Martha Swope©NYPL for the Performing Arts.

But those kinds of exceptions are just that—exceptions. And the truth is the truth, always and always, forever and ever, amen. And a lie is a lie is a lie. Even if you told it to avoid hurting her feelings. Even if you told it to avoid breaking his heart. Or because there was a lot of money on the table. Or because there was a problem of sex in the air. Or because you really wanted that job, that part, that solo, that promotion, that presidency, and what’s one little white lie in the larger scheme of things? Only everything.

A lie is an unequal exchange of power where the weak one gives power to the one who is perceived to be stronger. The one who is perceived to be able to reward or punish the liar without regard to rightness or righteousness. Without regard for human decency or the better argument. So, for the liar, it is only necessary to figure out what power wants to hear and say it loud and repeatedly since power always loves the sound of its own ideas coming back to it as if they had been generated spontaneously, carried in the wind like the voice of the people. But a lie is still a lie. And what’s one little white lie in the larger scheme of things? Only the beginning of the end.

Because there is no wisdom without truth. There is no peace without truth. There is no justice without truth. There is no love without truth. There is only fear and anger and selfishness and cruelty and violence and rape and murder and guns and war and more and more manifestations worldwide of that strange human idea that the one who kills the most people wins, but wins what? Absolutely nothin’.

This is the moment in which we find ourselves. A moment when people in positions of great power have decided that nothing needs to be called by its proper name, so that lies become “alternative facts” and white nationalists can be forgiven for a torch-lit, swastika-waving hate parade because the president says they’re really “good people” under those white polo shirts and immigrants can be demonized and deported with no regard for their humanity and transgender soldiers can be banished from the military and a woman’s right to choose when or whether to have children is framed as a decision to be made by men who say they are simply enforcing the will of a god they claim is the only true divinity because he’s the one they were raised to believe in.

This is the world some men have made and I think we can do better. I think we have to. But this is not simply a question of biology. This is a question of finding a new vision of the way people can live together.

This is still our country, in all her beautiful, strange, vulnerable, hopeful terribleness, and in the face of such an amazing gift and awesome responsibility, it is still the writer’s job to imagine.

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