A Ritual for the Alliance Theatre at Almost Fifty

March 30, 2017: On the Road
So, we’re riding through America, me and my True Love, on our way to Jackson, Tennessee, by way of Tupelo, Mississippi, because of storms in the area that make the sky a roiling ceiling of gray and grayer. We decide to stop for the night in Tupelo, which is always a pleasure since it is Elvis’ hometown, and attention must be paid. So we check into a motel and head for the Outback Steak House next door.

It is just starting to rain as we step inside, congratulating each other on successfully avoiding the storms when the blond haired, blue-eyed young waiter looks at Zeke’s knee length dread locks, dark suit, and gray homburg. He says, “You are the sharpest dressed person who has ever been in this building!” And we know that means something in Elvis’ hometown where you are like as not to run into a life-size cut-out of the man himself at the end of the aisle in the liquor store, impeccably dressed in his signature gold suit.

So Zeke thanks the kid and we consider the menus, and I’m thinking: This would never have happened fifty years ago. Not to me. Not to him. Not to us. Not to our blue-eyed waiter. No part of it. But now, here I sit, sharing a meal with my favorite sharp dressed man, and I’m conscious of the changes in my country—the courage and the blood that was required, and I’m grateful. I mentally thank the ancestors and think about how fast fifty years goes by as I watch the Mississippi rain outside the window. The steaks are delicious.

Back at the motel, I get an email from my Artistic Director, Susan Booth. “Any interest in doing a ritual of goodbye for this Thursday?” she writes, inviting me to shape a piece for the last company meeting to take place at the theatre where I am in residence before extensive renovations gut the existing space in order to create something brand new. Susan and I have had many conversations about our current main stage space. Designed before 1965 when segregation was the law of the land in Georgia, it has many strange features that only make sense when you realize it. For example, the balcony is practically invisible from the main floor because it was for Negro patrons only. Out of sight; out of mind.

So, yes, I write back. Absolutely. Of course I want to write a ritual for the Alliance Theatre at fifty. And here is what I wrote…

woman giving a speech
Pearl Cleage shares the Ritual with Alliance Theatre board members, staff, and supporters at the groundbreaking ceremony for the new theatre space. Photo by Greg Mooney.

 

I came to my place at this theatre afraid of the ghosts that live here. Afraid of the building designed to keep me in my invisible place because that was the law of the land, at least the part of it we’re standing on in this deepest of Deep South states: home of Scarlett O’Hara and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

A Ritual for the Alliance at Fifty (To be spoken out loud in the presence of the Tribe):
Any good ritual must begin with a confession, which we know is not only good for the soul, but for the raging, insatiable ego, a constant challenge in this life we’ve chosen.

Because a real confession must include the moment of realizing there has been a sin, a transgression, a stumble on the road to selfhood and salvation.

The moment when the truth of who you are, and why you are, and where you are, comes crashing up against who you thought you were, hoped you were, were longing to be, if you could just let go of all the ideas that are not your own true self; all the ideas that don’t rise up slowly from the deep well of your humanness; the deep ocean of what you, yourself, know to be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

In that moment, you must humble yourself and confess if you are serious about the future, the way forward, the toxic power of anger, and the healing power of love and the truth—the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

So this is my confession…

I came to my place at this theatre afraid of the ghosts that live here. Afraid of the building designed to keep me in my invisible place because that was the law of the land, at least the part of it we’re standing on in this deepest of Deep South states: home of Scarlett O’Hara and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Afraid of the wealth, the white, and all the things I have been raised to resist. Afraid of not being able to hear my own voice among the whispering ghosts who live here in our house.

It isn’t hard to hear them. An empty theatre is as full of urgent voices as an empty church. As full of prayers, longing, and the deep desire for transformation and transcendence.

I was afraid those voices would overpower my own. There are still so many ghosts in our house…

And so at first, I was always on guard in case I met one coming around the corner, lurking in the rehearsal hall, or sitting under that statue of Mr. Woodruff—draped in their twentieth century costumes, itching for a fight and finding me. But all I kept finding were Chris, Susan, Rodney, Rosemary, Victor, Patrick, Sara, Pete, Rachel, Mike, Christina, Jody, Donya, Jeff, Michael, Ralph, and your name goes here…

All I kept finding were members of my very own twenty-first century tribe and you all were talking so loud and working so hard that the ghosts couldn’t get a word in edgewise.

Or at least I couldn’t hear them anymore…

But in the silence, I could hear my own voice clearly, my own American voice, whispering the twenty-first century stories we will need as we move through this strange and wonderful moment when truth needs a soldier; when truth needs someone to step center stage into the light of one perfect spot, and tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

What we do here together is tell and retell the ancient stories of our tribe; the stories that find us and bind us, one-to-one, generation after generation, lifetime after lifetime, forever and ever, Amen.

Before there was music, and before there were drawings on a dry cave wall, there were storytellers. They were the ones who came through every time, in every space, and landed here with us/for us/in us…

 

Is escapism … what we need now more than ever? Or do we need social engagement?

 

woman giving a speech
Pearl Cleage with Alliance Theatre board members, staff, and supporters at the groundbreaking ceremony for the new theatre space. Photo by Greg Mooney.

It is the stories that make the theatre a living place. And for fifty years, this space has been the campfire where we gathered to turn our faces toward the light and see ourselves. Fifty years of love and loss, faith and forgiveness, rage and redemption—right here in this room. All the messy, mesmerizing details of our fragile, fabulous human lives.

I’ve seen my friends on this stage. I’ve watched them call the Spirits in. I’ve watched them rage against the dying of the light. I’ve watched them sing like angels, and dance like they had wings on their feet. And I have been proud to be a member of this tribe.

Because at its insane, insatiable heart, the theatre is only and always a place of revelation and renewal. What has really happened here in this room over the last fifty years is a passionate, unbroken quest for the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

This is all I ever wanted to do. And all I know how to do. And I’m gonna do it until I can’t do it, and then I’m gonna do it some more.

This is the life we’ve chosen. This is the life that shaped us, saved us, and made us understand the power of telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

So we are gathered here to give thanks for the last fifty years and to celebrate the next fifty, and the next fifty, and the fifty after that.

The house that we are building, the house that we will shape together, will be built to be a welcoming place; a wide and wonderful place that looks like us, sounds like us, sings like us, and never for one second considers anything but the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Forever and forever, Amen.

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It is delicious to read your words. I have been missing you on Facebook. Just all that beautifully written heart and soul and strong thought. All the ways you call me to be the best self I can be. Thanks for these words, though I never have been in the Alliance I am a member of the far-flung theatre tribe, doing my best to sing in my true voice and tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Amen.

Beautiful. I too got my start at the Alliance Theatre in a production of Cinderella decades ago. I didn't know the story of the balcony. Thank you for sharing it Pearl.