Pearl Cleage at the Alliance Theatre

Playwright

Pearl Cleage is an Atlanta-based writer, currently Mellon Playwright in Residence at the Tony Award-winning Alliance Theatre. Her new play Angry, Raucous, and Shamelessly Gorgeous, had its world premiere as a part of the theatre’s 50th anniversary season in 2019. Other plays at the Alliance include Pointing at the Moon, What I Learned in Paris, and Flyin’ West, the most produced new play in the country in 1994. Her play, The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of Your Presence at a Celebration of Their First One Hundred Years, was commissioned by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival and co-produced with the Alliance in Montgomery and Atlanta. Her first play for young audiences, Tell Me My Dream, was commissioned and produced by the Alliance in 2015. Blues for An Alabama Sky was included in the 1996 Olympic Arts Festival and has been produced in multiple American theatres every year since it premiered at the Alliance in 1995. The Alliance included a 20th anniversary production in their 2015 season, directed by Susan V. Booth. It recently enjoyed an extended run at The Court Theatre in Chicago and a critically praised production at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. Her other plays include Late Bus to Mecca, Bourbon at the Border, and A Song for Coretta.

Her first novel, What Looks Like Crazy On An Ordinary Day, was an Oprah Book Club pick and spent nine weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Her other novels include Baby Brother’s Blues, which received an NAACP Image Award for Literature, I Wish I Had A Red Dress, Babylon Sisters, and Things I Never Thought I’d Do.  Her memoir, Things I Should Have Told My Daughter: Lies, Lessons and Love Affairs, was published by Simon and Schuster/ATRIA Books in April, 2014. She is also the co-author with her husband, writer Zaron W. Burnett, Jr., of We Speak Your Names, a praise poem commissioned by Oprah Winfrey for her 2005 Legends Weekend, and A 21st Century Freedom Song: For Selma at 50, commissioned by Winfrey for the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March. Cleage and Burnett are frequent collaborators including their award winning ten year performance series, Live at Club Zebra! featuring their work as writers and performance artists. They are currently collaborating with visual artist Radcliffe Bailey on their first book for children, In My Granny’s Garden.

Cleage was awarded the Governor’s Award for the Arts in 2018. She received an Honorary Doctorate in Fine Arts from her alma mater, Spelman College, in 2010 and spent two years as a member of the Spelman faculty. She was the founding editor of CATALYST Magazine, an Atlanta-based literary journal, for ten years and served as Artistic Director of Just Us Theater Company for five years. Her work has been given grant support through the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fulton County Arts Council, the Georgia Council for the Arts, the City of Atlanta Bureau of Cultural Affairs, and the Coca-Cola Foundation. Her current position as Playwright in Residence at the Alliance Theatre is funded by a generous grant from The Mellon Foundation.

Theatre

The Alliance Theatre strives to set the highest artistic standards and create the powerful experience of shared theater for a diverse audience. Above all else, we value excellence, pursued with integrity and creativity, and achieved through collaboration. View, edit or add to their profile on the New Play Map.

Residency Activity

When I became a part of the first group of playwrights of the NPRP there was no way I could have predicted the profound and wholly unexpected way that the residency would affect my writing life. Sure, I was looking forward to getting off the road and putting down deeper artistic roots in the city I’ve called home since 1969. Sure, I was looking forward to exploring long term collaborations with other artists. Sure, I was looking forward to seeing more of my plays on the Alliance stages. I even welcomed the opportunity to interact with others at the senior staff level and to learn more about the mysterious nexus where art and commerce and community must find a common language to make any progress at all.

That was the shape of what was more or less known to me as I began my first cohort. And all of that happened. I found my place at a theatre that felt like it could really be my artistic home. I met and collaborated with visionary directors, wonderful designers, and the kind of amazing actors who inhabit a playwright’s dreams. And I learned enough about that mysterious nexus to realize that art and community are the things at the heart of my life and work and that commerce was best left to those who understand and embrace the challenge of it better than I ever will.

But something else happened, too. Somewhere along the way during those first three years, I started working with high school students in an Alliance program called The Palefsky Collision Project. I had never worked with young people and I only agreed to do it on the condition that it would be a one summer deal. Nothing more. And that is how it began. That first summer was challenging in every way. I found working with teens exhausting, exasperating, and exhilarating in equal measure. But by the end of the third week, I had found in our young participants a way into understanding a generation that had been out of my reach. I also found an anecdote to the poisonous cynicism that can sometimes overwhelm a creative spirit in challenging times such as these. They made me feel hopeful. And in exchange, I tried to make them feel their own power.

I realized I was interacting them at a critical time in their young lives and that I could reassure them by my very presence that yes, you can be an artist. Yes, it is a lifetime commitment. Yes, it is the greatest challenge and the greatest joy. And yes, this is your tribe. Yes, this is your country. Stand up for what you believe. Stand up for your right to make art. Love your perfect self. And don’t forget to eat your vegetables, which is actually my mother’s advice. The point is, I only intended to do this project for one summer. At the end of the project, I would wish everyone well and get back to my real work, writing plays for grownups. Except I wasn’t ready to leave this new world, this new tribe, these brave young artists just coming into their own. So, I did another summer. And another one. This July will be my ninth one with the project.

And it didn’t end there. I wrote a play for middle schoolers. I co-authored a book for toddlers which is slated to become a play for very young audiences. And I’m working on a play for ten-year-olds about the sit-in movement. My work with and for young people is some of the most satisfying of my life in the theatre and I’m excited by the possibilities. I am absolutely sure that I would not have found this phase of my work without this residency at the Alliance Theatre.

So, my advice to those playwrights considering NPRP applications, and those who have been chosen, is to be open to exploring every part of your home theatre, but I know that’s preaching to the choir. Of course, you will. That’s what it means to be home. Comfortable in every room. Even the ones we didn’t know were waiting to welcome us. And don’t forget to eat your vegetables.

More from the Residency

Vera Stark: Passing and the Complex Landscape of Identity Formation at Emory University
Video

Vera Stark: Passing and the Complex Landscape of Identity Formation at Emory University

9 October 2013
Atlanta, GA, United States

Emory University and Alliance Thatre present Vera Stark: Passing and the Complex Landscape of Identity Formation panel discussion filmed on 9 October 2013.

five women of color in colorful dresses
Calling in the Spirits
Essay

Calling in the Spirits

How Theatre Can Help Us Tell the Truth

20 June 2019

Playwright Pearl Cleage discusses playwriting, activism, and how theatremakers can help save the world in this excerpt from her keynote speech at the 2019 TYA/USA National Festival & Conference.

two Black actresses sit on a couch
The Gift
Essay

The Gift

The Importance of Difficult Conversations Between Collaborators

12 May 2019

Playwright Pearl Cleage reflects on the power of truth-telling to find common ground and discusses how Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, GA is working to confront the legacy of Southern racism.

A Ritual for the Alliance Theatre at Almost Fifty
Essay

A Ritual for the Alliance Theatre at Almost Fifty

5 May 2017

Playwright Pearl Cleage shares her ritual at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Alliance Theatre’s new theatre space on March 30, 2017. 

Rage in Context
Essay

Rage in Context

23 July 2016

Play recommendations from playwright Pearl Cleage for contextualizing the current anger felt by many Americans.

Pearl Cleage
Essay

Pearl Cleage

Making a Life in the Theatre

4 June 2016

Playwright Pearl Cleage discusses growing up in a politically active family, the challenges faced by actors and directors of color, and the need for truth in theatre.

Why Pearl Cleage, Why Alliance Theatre?
Essay

Why Pearl Cleage, Why Alliance Theatre?

15 March 2016

Artistic Director Susan Booth and Resident Playwright Pearl Cleage discuss their working relationship at the Alliance.

Oh, the Feels! Or, What Is the Collision Project?
Essay

Oh, the Feels! Or, What Is the Collision Project?

17 September 2014

Anne Towns shares an overview of the Alliance Theatre Collision Project. 

Twentieth Anniversary Production of Pearl Cleage's Blues for an Alabama Sky
Essay

Twentieth Anniversary Production of Pearl Cleage's Blues for an Alabama Sky

4 August 2014

This season, Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre will present a twentieth anniversary production of "Blues for an Alabama Sky" by playwright in residence Pearl Cleage. The Alliance premiered the play during their 1995 season.

Soul Serenade #3
Essay

Soul Serenade #3

A Few Words on Scrooge and Santa

17 December 2013

Pearl Cleage writes about color-conscious casting in productions of A Christmas Carol, and the importance of representation during the holidays and beyond.

Soul Serenade #2
Essay

Soul Serenade #2

The Challenge of Vera Stark

2 December 2013

The day after the opening, I get an email from a lawyer friend who says: “Okay, Pearl, you’re the expert. Explain the second act of that play we saw last night.” I sigh and put on the coffee. My hands hover over the keys. I’m not sure what to say or how to say it. Not sure where to find the intersection of honest critique, institutional loyalty and sisterhood solidarity, I plunge in, hoping for the best.

Soul Serenade
Essay

Soul Serenade

Thoughts on a Residency in Progress

26 October 2013

Pear Clearge talks about the complexity of her residency at The Alliance as it brings together the subject of ingenuity/institution and context of location.

In Search of the Artistic Home
Essay

In Search of the Artistic Home

3 April 2012

Jamie Gahlon has asked theatre artists from around the country to talk about their personal search for an artistic home. Pearl Cleage continues this series.