Vocalizing Difficult Issues as Playwrights in Residence

Pearl Cleage and Vera Starbard in Conversation, Part I

Vera Starbard: How are you?

Pearl Cleage: Good. I’ve just finished up six years of my National Playwright Residency Program (NPRP) residency at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia, but they have asked me to stay. So I’m still there as an artist-in-residence, which is wonderful.

Vera: Awesome.

Pearl: That’s what the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation hoped the grant would do, and that’s what I hoped it would do, too.

I live in Atlanta, and the theatre is in Atlanta. It’s a big regional theatre that’s in an art complex, connected to the symphony and the museum. Which was a challenge for me, just because I’m not used to working in that kind of environment, where there are people talking about huge sums of money and all of that. I realized I didn’t want to be involved in conversations about money. I wanted my relationship with the company to be primarily as a writer, not someone who has opinions about budgets. That’s not really my job and I’m not good at it. Because when they talk about spending a million dollars on an electronic marquee, I’m thinking, “Do you know how many artists you can support forever with the amount you’re going to spend on that sign?” So I removed myself from those discussions and everything else about the residency has been great, including being in one place and getting to work with some really wonderful people doing different things.

Tell me what the theatre is like where you are.

three actors onstage

Devilfish by Vera Starbard.

Vera: We’re a little bit smaller—I’m at Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, Alaska. Knowing our marketing budget, I’m like, “Oh man.” The billboard you just spoke of would cost roughly three quarters of our entire annual budget! But it’s the definitely the biggest professional theatre in the state.

The company was started by Molly Smith, and we’re in the middle of the forty-first season. For the last almost decade we’ve also been doing half the season in Anchorage—when a show wraps up in Juneau, there is a dead week, where the set and everything travels up to Anchorage, and everyone is flown there. It’s kind of an unusual, now that I’m coming to understand the theatre world much more. But it’s also really an unusual state.

Pearl: Had you been working with them before?

Vera: No. It wasn’t that well known to me. I didn’t know how much of an institution it was until I really started working with them, which was with my first play—they’re the ones who produced it. It is a white arts institution in the state. When I came on as a resident, I was the only Native employee, and the state is 20 percent Native.

Pearl: That’s always a weird feeling isn’t it?

Vera: Yeah.

Pearl: I had that same experience walking into the first senior staff meeting. There were no people of color in those meetings at all until I arrived at the theatre. After the meeting, I immediately mentioned it to our artistic director, saying, “You know you have a challenge here. This city is 55 percent, 60 percent Black. There are no Black people in these meetings where decisions are being made.” She’s a good person and I really like her, but I think she was taken aback by it. She said she hadn’t really noticed.

I responded, “If there had been a room full of Chinese American people when you walked in, wouldn’t you have noticed it? If there had been a room full of African American people, wouldn’t you have noticed it?” She said, “Yes.”

I said, “That’s the problem—when your normal is seeing a room full of white people, in an environment where there are people of color, and not knowing that’s a problem.” We really started talking about it, and she mentioned the fact that they get most of the people who work there from a certain pipeline.

We talked about the fact that if they’re only getting sent white candidates, then they need another pipeline. Because it’s not that there are no people of color who can do these jobs and want these jobs. We now have a wonderful exchange program with Spelman College, which is a college for Black women here in Atlanta with a great theatre program.

Sometimes these big institutions don’t realize how blind they are to the world.

I graduated from Spelman, and when I was talking to our artistic director, I said, “Right across town there is a group of very bright young Black women who want to work in theatre. Let’s figure out how we can make the pipeline be between these two institutions.” She was already in conversation with Spelman, so we could move really fast. We have interns now. We also have a two-year fellowship program. It’s really going great.

Sometimes these big institutions don’t realize how blind they are to the world. They’re busy doing what they’re doing, not really thinking about how it’s not that difficult to toss a wider net.

The Alliance Theatre is in the Woodruff Arts Center, named after the former president and founder of Coca-Cola, who gave the money to make it. It’s right in the middle of Atlanta, and the Center is fond of saying, “We’re like the Lincoln Center of the south.” But in many ways, it’s really still a place that was founded for wealthy people by wealthy people. The Center is often an environment where the audiences it draws doesn’t look at all like the city it claims to be representing.

That’s one of the big things I’ve been really happy to talk about any time I have a chance. To say, let’s not make this about an outreach program or a voucher program for African Americans. Because it’s not just African American people and other people of color who have to figure out how to afford these tickets. It’s everybody who is of a certain economic level. All of this is very complicated, and we’re going to have to learn how to talk about it, which is sometimes the most difficult thing. Some people are not used to talking honestly about what they see.

Vera: That’s amazing. When you came into the residency, was that part of the agreement, or what you talked about doing as part of your job?

Pearl: It was. Susan Booth, the artistic director, had directed a play of mine a couple of years earlier. I had asked her about producing it, and she said she really loved it and would like to direct it. We had to have a conversation about that relationship, about collaborating on a piece of work, and what that would mean. We had to find a way to be sure we were speaking honestly to each other about race through the process of collaborating.

I had to feel like I could speak to her honestly about race, and that she could speak back to me honestly about race, and that we would not run screaming from the room when the questions got complicated. We had a conversation that I still love about the fact that often, when women of color speak to white women about race problems, the white woman will, at a certain point, start crying, which changes the discussion from what the person of color is talking about to comforting the white woman who is in tears.

I said, “I really want us to do this, but you have to promise me you’re never going to cry no matter what I say to you. You do not have the right to cry because you’re in a privileged position.” She said, “I promise I will not cry.”

Then, once we had the conversation, she kept thinking how, everywhere she looked, when questions were brought up about race, she always saw white women start crying. I said, “You see? You don’t want to be that person. You want to be able to listen and absorb it, and not change the flow of the discussion.”

We had lots of meaningful discussions about race, and work in theatre, so when I got the Mellon grant, conversation was in progress. Otherwise, I don’t think I ever would have accepted to work there, because it would have been too much if the artistic director didn’t want to talk about race. We’re in a Deep South state, you have to always talk about race.

How did the discussions go where you were?

Vera: I’ve definitely been in conversations with the artistic director. At the beginning we weren’t really talking about the efforts as racial equity or social justice, which is now what we’re calling them. I have a much longer background in what I’m calling racial equity work than I do in theatre. Before it was Native justice or Native social justice work, because it was always through Native organizations.

When we talked about me coming in and doing community work, our former artistic director, Art Rotch, said the company wanted to get more of a Native audience. Some of why he wanted me in the residency was because there wasn’t anyone else doing that effort in the theatre except for him.

I hadn’t realized how much easier it is to do the work when you’re in an institution that is owned and operated by the people who are being oppressed.

At the beginning it was more a conversation with Art about getting in a Native audience. The first year being at Perseverance, I was a little naïve. I hadn’t done anything with primarily non-Native organizations. I had always worked with organizations that were operated and owned by Native people.

I had been talking about Native issues, and looking at plays with more color and issues of color, and one day I realized, “Oh, I’m the only one who has been thinking about this.” It was a wake up call. My mentor Larissa FastHorse, a Lakota playwright—was like, “Welcome to the fight.”

Pearl: It’s a sobering thought, isn’t it?

Vera: Definitely. I felt a little cut out. I hadn’t realized how much easier it is to do the work when you’re in an institution that is owned and operated by the people who are being oppressed otherwise.

Pearl: When you are a playwright of color, and you’re in these institutions... It isn’t even that they’re aggressively rejecting you. They haven’t even thought about you.

I have been working in Black theatres for years and years, and years. This is really the first one that is not a Black theatre, and it is very different, because you start thinking about the audience, “Will they understand what this is about?” Whereas working in a Black theatre as a Black playwright for a Black audience, I’ve never had that thought. I knew that whatever I was writing about, they would understand. That’s a real challenge, being conscious of not adapting what I say or how I say it, given the fact that many audience members at this big theatre will not be people of color.

I feel like they can handle it. Look at all the things that have come across your eyes and mine, which were not written by people who were exactly like us. We found ourselves in there, as human beings, as women, as people who’re struggling with one thing and another. That’s the thing I’m very aware of—not changing my work in any way to say, “Well, now I’m working in front of people who aren’t Black people. I need to explain.” I need to just do whatever it is I feel like I need to do.

What you need to do is keep writing what’s on your mind, and they’ll get it or they won’t. It can’t suddenly become visionary work for them.

Vera: With the production we just finished, I really only came to that point you’re talking about a few days before rehearsal. I had been thinking, They won’t understand this, this audience won’t be familiar with Tlingit stuff—even though we’re in Tlingit country.

In Anchorage, which is not Tlingit country, they won’t know either. In some ways, because of that limit, and because I was pretty frustrated with a lot of chaos that was going on at the theatre, I was like, “Well, I’m going to make this for Tlingit people. It’s already a love letter to the Tlingit people. I’m ignoring everyone else, this is the story for them. This is the story about how proud I am of our people.” I decided to just go for it, and I really dug my heels in on that—including some things people at the theatre were pushing back on, not because they didn’t want to do them, but because they didn’t think they would work within our production limits. I had little diva moments.

Pearl: Stamping your feet and saying, “We will do it,” right?

Vera: Yeah. The crazy part was this little Tlingit play ended up being a huge commercial success in the community. Some of that was because way more Native people came to see it, but most of it had to do with the fact that the majority non-Native, white audiences came to see it, some of them multiple times.

Doing the play in the way I, as an Indigenous person, wanted to do it was a bigger commercial success than if we had done it the way gatekeepers said to do it, which is a little bit whitewashed.

I’ve been worried about not being understood for too long. It turns out that when I’m completely myself is when people connect with it.

Pearl: That’s what’s so wonderful: if you write what you really want to write, the humanness of it will speak to other people. I have never written a play with any white characters. People ask me about that sometimes, “Do you ever think about putting white people in your plays?” I say, “I don’t really think about my plays that way, dividing up the characters by race.”

Are there any white people in here? Is there any of this or that in there? The stories I have chosen to tell are stories where no white characters appeared, and if I have a story I’m interested in with white characters, I certainly will put them in. But I don’t think I have to put them in for a non–African American audience to get and enjoy, to know those characters.

Some white audience members will come to me and say, “I couldn’t believe it when I was listening to the grandmother in your play. She sounded just like my grandmother.” I always say to them, “Isn’t it amazing how all grandmothers say the same thing to their granddaughters?”

It’s like they’re all thinking that race makes everything different. It makes the grandmother message different, it makes family stories different. But then there’s that moment when they realize, “This is just like my family—the details are different, but the humanity is present.” That’s what was surprising to me: how in this day and age, these people were still finding that moment.

Once they get there, they can’t go back to feeling that if there are not white people on the stage, it’s not about them. If it’s anything by and about human beings, then find yourself in there, because you’ll be in there.

Vera: I love it. I think I’ve been worried about not being understood for too long. It turns out that when I’m completely myself is when people connect with it.

Pearl: And when you don’t try to make your work something other than what comes from your heart, from what you love and believe. When you start letting race or politics in there, in a way where you sit there on the opening night and say, “That is not what I had in mind. That is really not my work”—that would be horror for me. I never want to feel like that.

If people don’t love it, they just don’t love it. I don’t want them to love it and me to feel like, “Oh God, what is the mess I’m looking at? Who was I talking to, and why was I talking like that as opposed to just talking like myself?” Because you can instantly hear it.

Do you feel like being active and involved in the theatre made a big difference in terms of how the staff and administration is able to understand the things we’re talking about?

three actors onstage

The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of Your Presence at a Celebration of Their First One Hundred Years by Pearl Cleage. Photo by Greg Mooney.

Vera: It’s really difficult, because in the time I’ve been at this theatre, there’s been a complete changeover of the entire staff, including the leadership. There are two Anchorage employees, and I’m one of them. The rest of the staff is in Juneau full-time. The other Anchorage employee and I were just laughing about this: we’re now the most senior people at the theatre in our positions. I’ve been there three and a half years. We have a brand new artistic director, Leslie Ishii, a Japanese American artist. She’s done racial equity work for decades, and is a leader in that arena.

That has been a very, very recent game changer for me as a woman of color. I’m now talking to someone who is coming from a more similar perspective—we’re going to start talking about anti-racism for the staff. I had started that work within the theatre, with a racial equity retreat, but every single person who had come is gone. So we’re starting from square one now, because nothing has been established. Some people are knowledgeable in that area, and some aren’t. We’re just now figuring out what that means. I not only gained an ally in Leslie, but a leader.

Pearl: That’s really great.

Vera: One harder thing was that the racial equity requirements had been coming from a playwright in the theatre, and people have ideas about what a playwright does or doesn’t do.

Pearl: They do: hopefully be seen not heard.

Vera: Now the artistic director is calling the racial equity meetings and topics. That’s been helpful. The sheer knowledge she has is the bigger asset, but her just doing the work is a help.

Pearl: One of the really great things about this grant was embedding playwrights in a theatre, so that we don’t just come in for rehearsal and then leave. The playwright is there to talk about the art and the audience, and to be a voice that continues on.

That’s such an important idea, because, at a big theatre like the one where I am, sometimes it feels like everything else gets talked about, and at the end of the day we talk a little bit about the issues that we need to confront. The class issues, the racial issues, all of those things. It’s difficult for people to talk about those things if they’re not used to doing it.

I’ve been talking about race my whole life, so being in residence in a place like the Alliance where people aren’t always used to talking about it means sometimes they are a little nervous. But I can talk about race wherever people can meet me, whatever their questions are, whatever their misapprehensions are, and that was really helpful in this setting. Many of the people I worked with had never had an honest conversation with a person of color.

It’s important to me to continue to talk to people about race whenever people are ready to talk about it.

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Thoughts from the curator

This series pairs current and past participants in the National Playwright Residency Program (NPRP) for in-depth conversations about the impact of their residencies on their work, the theatre, and their community. In collaboration with The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, HowlRound Theatre Commons established NPRP in 2013. The program provides three years of salary, benefits, and a flexible research and development fund for a diverse group of American playwrights at selected theatres around the country. More than a standard residency, we conceived this initiative as an intervention into the traditional relationships between artists and institutions, as a way of reimagining what institutions might look like when an artist’s voice is at their cores.

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This is such an excellent piece, and important documentation about how artists and staff of color are asked to navigate PWIs. Thank you Pearl and Vera, and thanks to the Mellon Foundation.