Pearl Cleage at the Alliance Theatre
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.
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.
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.