Making a Life in the Theatre
Morgan Mims: I'd like to know more about your childhood. Can you tell me more about growing up in a politically active family and how it impacted your social/political views?
Pearl Cleage: I grew up on the West Side of Detroit, Michigan. My family had already been there for two generations when I was born. When I started elementary school, my classmates were almost all Jewish, many from immigrant families displaced by World War II. By the end of first grade, all of these families had left our neighborhood when black families started moving in. From second grade until I graduated from high school in 1966, all of my classmates in the Detroit Public Schools were African American.
My father, Rev. Albert Cleage, was very active in Freedom Struggle (the Civil Rights movement) and I don't remember a time when I wasn't going to meetings, handing out flyers, and participating in picket lines and election day activities. It was a big part of our lives. Being an active part of the community we lived in was simply part of who we were as a family. My grandfather was the first African American City Physician in Detroit and helped found a black hospital. My other grandfather came North during the Great Migration to take Henry Ford up on his offer of a job for anybody who wanted to work, and he kept that job for forty years. He was also a founding trustee of Plymouth Congregational Church, the city's first African American Congregational church, where he remained an active member until he died. My grandmothers were lucky to be able to stay home to raise their children and not have to do outside work, although both might have preferred it. One wanted to be a concert singer and one had very much wanted to go to college.
I am very conscious of the ghettoizing of black writers. There is a need for publishers and critics to compare me to Terry McMillan, but never to Anne Tyler.
I enjoyed politics and often accompanied my father to political meetings at our church and around the city. My stepfather, Henry Cleage, and two of my other uncles, Hugh Cleage and Dr. Louis Cleage, owned and operated a printing plant where my family published a weekly called The Illustrated News. The issues of the day were analyzed and strategies for change were offered, including voter registration, economic boycotts, and the founding of the Freedom Now Party. My father ran for governor of Michigan at the top of the party's statewide ticket while I was in high school.
Although she too wrote for the paper, my mother, Doris Cleage's, resistance was often more personal. She would stand up loudly for better goods and services when doing her grocery shopping in our neighborhood at the few stores that had remained when the neighborhood changed its ethnic composition. These white shopkeepers allowed their offerings to deteriorate as if black shoppers were not deserving of the kind of service they had recently provided our neighbors. My mother was not prepared to let them slide.
My family believed in Black Nationalism and I grew up seeing myself in that way. We lived separately within Detroit's black community by choice. My entire world was African American at every level and it never seemed strange or tragic to me. Detroit didn't have the visible signs of legal segregation that we saw in the South, but discriminatory housing patterns made it easy for communities to be all one race or another. Mine was all black. Black teachers, black doctors, black factory workers, black bookstore owners, black lawyers, black elected officials. Anything we needed, we were able to able to find black people who could provide that service. I later went to historically black colleges, published my first books with independent black presses and built a reputation as a playwright working within the national network of African American theatres.
Aside from my political education, one of the great gifts my family gave me was a real respect for writing and writers. They supported the young writers who were revolutionizing American poetry and were always encouraging my desire to be a writer, although I think they worried about how I would make a living at it. My parents always had lots of books around and I was encouraged and allowed to read anything that caught my eye from Jean Paul Sartre to Franz Fanon. Langston Hughes was my mother's favorite so I read a lot of his work when I was very young. It made me see how exciting a writer's life could be. I couldn't wait!
Morgan: Did you face any oppressions being an African American playwright and author? How did you overcome them?
Pearl: I started publishing with a black press, Broadside Press, in Detroit. They published my first book of poetry, We Don't Need No Music. My second publisher, Third World Press, in Chicago, was also an independent black press. These were black institutions so there was no racial discrimination involved. When I began publishing in New York, I had great agents who handled interactions with publishers and always looked out for my interests. I also had the wonderful advantage of having my first novel become an Oprah Book Club pick. No publisher can resist the sales that generates!
But I am not naïve. I know that there are many ways that writers of color are viewed in the publishing industry and in the professional theatre world that are based on ignorance and bigotry. I am very conscious of the ghettoizing of black writers. There is a need for publishers and critics to compare me to Terry McMillan, but never to Anne Tyler. We are not usually considered American writers and that is a loss because the American literary narrative must include all of our voices.
In theatre, I had the same kind of journey. My work was done in black theatres all over the country for years, but almost no white ones until I did my first play at the Alliance Theatre. This play, Flyin' West, brought my work to the attention of the national regional theatres and introduced me to a whole new audience. At the time, I hadn't thought of the Alliance commissioning as any kind of crossover strategy. I don't think about my work that way. I went there to work with my friend, Kenny Leon, who was the Artistic Director at the time. Overall, I don't think of "overcoming" obstacles as much as I am always trying to find a way to work with people I like and trust, do my best work and get it in front of people. It's a different focus.
Morgan: Your plays often show insight into issues that are potentially uncomfortable. What are the advantages and disadvantages of being so truthful in your work? Did anyone ever try to make you censor your work?
Pearl: There are no disadvantages to being truthful in your work and in your life. Telling the truth is at the heart of what I do as a writer and what I strive for as a human. If people are uncomfortable in the face of truth, they have some work to do on themselves—as do we all! Helping people see the world and themselves differently is at the heart of what art can and should do.
Part of my job, I think, is to make my stories so interesting and my characters so real and so vibrant that the issues are indistinguishable from the lives I am presenting for your consideration. Nobody comes to the theatre to be preached to about issues. I think most people want to feel something at the theatre. Joy, sorrow, compassion, horror...something! Issues have to be knit into the fabric of the play so delicately that you don't realize they are there until it's too late to resist the author's point of view.
No one has ever tried to make me censor my work. I would never do it. I can always say no.
Part of my job, I think, is to make my stories so interesting and my characters so real and so vibrant that the issues are indistinguishable from the lives I am presenting for your consideration.
Morgan: Where do you stand on the issue of colorblind casting?
Pearl: I think any actor of any race should be able to play any role that is not designated as a specific race by the playwright. In the pieces where race is at the heart of things, I think the playwright's designation of a specific race should stand. That being said, sometimes it might be interesting to look at a culturally specific piece and cast it colorblind as well. What would it be like to see Fences with all Puerto Rican actors? We all do Shakespeare. Maybe one day we will all do Wilson.
This often happens at colleges where they want to work with an ethnically specific piece and don't have the ethnically diverse student population to do it. In the best of all possible worlds, this will also generate some discussion on campus about why the student body or the theatre department is not more reflective of what our country looks like right this very minute.
The problem in this discussion is that there are so many more opportunities for white actors because when the play doesn't specifically designate color, too many times, white directors and producers don't think of casting without regard to race. They simply cast white performers, which leaves actors of color at a huge professional disadvantage. Any suggestion that white people play roles designated as people of color will raise an outcry that is righteous and correct and necessary. The history of the American theatre is rife with black face, Asian stereotyping, and all manner of Latina/o caricatures. So it’s a little too early for black actors to say to white actors, "Okay, all is forgiven. Now you can do these roles too." To think otherwise is disingenuous.
Morgan: Do you every feel uncomfortable with white people directing your shows?
Pearl: The same challenge facing black actors is facing black directors. So many black directors are pigeonholed on the basis of race. They, and directors of all races, should be allowed to direct any play anywhere about anybody.
That being said, the same caveat applies as for actors. Until opportunities are equal, it is completely understandable that white directors of black plays are not always welcomed. Attention must also be paid to the cross-cultural intricacies that made August Wilson say, "A black play needs a black director." I completely affirm and respect the complexity of directing across different cultures, but that is surely every director's challenge to be joyfully met in a world of global collaborations and cultural overlap. Of course, it may get complicated while we learn how to do things differently. For example, who gets to direct a play like The Whipping Man, written by a Latino-American playwright, set right after the Civil War, and featuring recently freed slaves, some of who are practicing the Jewish rituals they learned from their Jewish former masters? The mind boggles.
I have had two of the most positive experiences of my professional life as a playwright working with white women directors. (I cringe to even identify them simply as white. It seems so limiting and sad to diminish all they are to an external definition of race!) Susan Booth and Rosemary Newcott at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta have both worked with me, and our processes included discussions of all aspects of the production, including but not limited to race. Such creative interaction has nothing to do with "not seeing race." It has to do with my belief that race is an artificial construct meant to divide people and that trust and honesty allow us to break through all that mess and create a space where all things can be discussed without fear and self-censoring.
If two artistic collaborators from different cultures/races/genders/ethnicities are doing the work they love, part of that work has to be telling each other the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth! There has to be willingness to say, I don't know this moment, this tradition, this word, this expectation. Can you help me understand from your point of view? And a corresponding willingness to understand that ignorance and innocence is not a crime. Asking for a deeper understanding is always a good thing, as are an open heart, a curious mind, and a joy at possibilities.