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Black Women Got Something to Say: A Conversation with Pearl Cleage

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What would Miss Leah say to Minnie? What would this one say to that one? It’s funny, because with a play like Flyin’ West, I wrote that play in 1992, and Miss Leah was really old to me. She was trying to find her cane and all that, and now I have arthritis in my knee. I have to buy my cane. So it’s like, “Oh, my God. I have changed generations in the process of encountering my own work,” which is really what Angry, Raucous, and Shamelessly Gorgeous is about. When you realize that you are no longer the bright, young wiz kid, that you are now the elder, and we have various responses to that because this is not a culture, not a society that is kind to older women at all.

I know many people fight against that. They cut up their faces and they dress weird and they’re hope that maybe they can pretend that they’re still thirty, and it never works. They just look like they’re sixty-five and weird. It doesn’t help. But I think that the whole idea of those women in Angry, Raucous, and Shamelessly Gorgeous that Anna at sixty-five coming up against a young woman at twenty-five who was going to do the role that made Anna famous. And Anna is not happy about that at all, at all, and so she says some really mean things. She’s like, “You’re just this, and you’re not worthy,” and all of that kind of stuff. What she has to come to is of course, she’s worthy. Of course, she is able to do something with that role that might not have occurred to Anna because of the forty years difference between them, and that that can be respected. That can be helpful.

Anna can infuse her conversation with the wisdom that made that piece come about and they can, as they do at the end of the play, realize that they can love each other and talk together and help each other with one being twenty-five and one being sixty-five. They can help each other be that age and do the work that they’re trying to do. So it always, I think, comes about as all the things do in my plays, because I’m trying to answer questions for myself. I feel like if something is driving me crazy, there’s a fairly good chance it’s driving some other women crazy too, so that if I can write it in a way where they can see the question in there, then it’s very helpful.

A lot of women came to see Angry, Raucous… with their mothers or with their granddaughters, which was so wonderful for me to realize that that play actually generated the kind of conversations that I was writing about. That’s where you have to go home and drink a glass of champagne and say, “I could get good at this if I keep doing it,” Because when it works, there’s nothing like writing a play and having people in the audience lean forward. That’s what we always want, where they’re not like, “Oh God, is it time to go?” But where they’re actually, they don’t want to miss anything, so they’re leaning into what you’re doing and that when you can see it and watch them leave the theatre talking to each other about the play. You can’t get that with a novel. You can’t get that with a poem because we’re not all there together, but in theatre, if you do it right, there’s nothing like it.

Leticia: It’s that magic.

Pearl: Yeah, it is. It really is.

Leticia: It’s that magic and being an audience member and wanting to lean forward, wanting to turn to who you’re sitting with and be like, “Oh, my God. Did you see what was going on?” I feel like that’s like Black communal, I don’t know, like I pause to say magic again, but something specifically when I see theatre with other Black folks that is just generated in the room.

Pearl: Yeah.

Leticia: When I was reading Angry, Raucous and Shamelessly Gorgeous, I kept thinking about my own grandma who I was raised by, and our relationship and that tension that you capture with Anna and Pete, in this like, “Okay, now there’s this media thing that’s going on,” or, “This is how my feminist politics is different than yours and how it’s grown and how it’s been stretched.” Even though we might not necessarily see eye-to-eye with everything, we can come to a sense of understanding or a sense of me passing the baton or helping guide you back to this community piece that you spoke about earlier that I really, really loved when I was reading it. I was so sad because I knew it was supposed to come to Arena Stage in DC, and the—

Pearl: The pandemic. But life is long. I think it’ll find its way back.

Leticia: Yes.

Pearl: Yeah.

Leticia: Speaking of that play, I was curious with the choice Black theatre and August Wilson are often synonymous. You say Black theatre, you say, “August.” I feel like that’s like Raisin in the Sun, that’s August Wilson. I remember seeing the announcement by the Arena about your play and being like, “Oh, August Wilson, Naked Wilson. Wow. We’re going there.” Can you just talk a bit about largely this idea of Black theatre as a concept and some of the figureheads that we have and who rises to the top? What you’re trying to do in the work with, frankly, what I see as posing the question of why someone like August Wilson has become this figurehead of what we call Black theatre, or white mainstream theatres being like, “All we can do is an August Wilson play ever.”

Pearl: Right. I think that I came of age at the time when those plays were new work, and it was like everybody was talking about August Wilson, talking about August Wilson—especially the Black men in theatre, who were the ones who were the producers, who were deciding what went on at New Federal, what went on at the Negro Ensemble Company. I have great respect for these brothers, really great respect. I’ve had some great conversations with them where they were like, “Will you stop talking about that feminist stuff. This is not a Black thing that you should be talking about and all of that,” but the idea that August plays were so wonderful that you couldn’t critique them in any way set in fairly quickly. I think part of the reason was that white theatres embraced that work so quickly, so then it became almost like you’re just trying to tear the brother down if you critiqued their work.

I don’t care about that. I think they’re great plays.I think they’re amazingly written, and I think that a lot of the conversations that the people have in these plays, the dialogue in these plays is so real that you have to just say, “Oh, my God. That sounds just like my uncles. That sounds just like the barbershop,” and I love all of that. At the same time, the women characters are so much thinner than the male characters most of the time. My favorite August Wilson play is Fences. I love the scene where Rose is saying, “You take up all the air in the room. You don’t leave any space for me,” because Troy is such a big character. I think that that’s actually true of most of August Wilson’s plays, that the men take up all the air in this space, because he was a man, and he was not a feminist man. So the idea that August and Robert Hooks and Woodie King and all of the wonderful men who were doing this work would embrace him. He was their contemporary. He was their guy.

He was really kicking ass in American theatre, so that those of us pulling on their coats saying, “But we wish the women could be stronger, and we’re writing plays too. Can we also have a play in that season?” It was like, “Mm, we’re not really thinking about that,” but we talked about it a lot. Actresses talked about it. Writers talked about it, directors, we talked about it, because of course you’re a Black person in theatre, you’re going to talk about August Wilson. You must come up against August Wilson for good or not good to do it so that those conversations, which were so important to our development as Black women writers and important because we are a part of the American theatre, important to the American theatre, those conversations were invisible. Nobody outside of the Black women who were talking about it knew about it. White people didn’t know that there were any Black feminist women critiquing August Wilson. How could they? Where would they hear that critique?

They weren’t looking for it because they weren’t aware of it. It didn’t occur to them that everyone did not embrace and love and affirm every part of these plays. So really, when I started thinking about Angry, Raucous… I wanted Anna to have done something wild and radical and revolutionary in reaction to wanting more from those plays. She wasn’t even talking so much about wanting Black women writers, she wanted more from those plays. She was bumping up against August so that her idea of, “I’m going to juxtapose the fact of I am a woman with what these guys are saying, and I’m going to make you think about it, because I’m going to just stand here naked and do all of Troy Max’s fabulous speeches.” So when I thought of that, I thought, “That would’ve been such a great idea if someone had actually done it, so that’s the beauty of being able to be a writer then you can make that happen. Although that never happened, it’s always lovely for me when people think that really happened and they missed it.

When we did it here, the costumer was like, “Are there any photographs of the costume so that I can see it?” I said, “That never happened at all.” The Black Theatre Festival would’ve died if someone had done something like that about August Wilson. I love the Black Theatre Festival, but that would’ve been what happened, probably would’ve been what happened, which is people would’ve wrapped her in a blanket and rushed her off the stage, locked her in the green room, all those things. So, the idea that we could have been so invested in our idea of our place in theatre to do a piece like this was so appealing to me, because I know that was something we talked about. Also, the ability in the play for me to add to the American theatrical cannon, a conversation that was critical to me as a Black woman, but that nobody knew outside of Black women to say, “Oh no, you have to, you have to know that this happened, this took place.”

The thing is that Anna, at the end of that, well, at the beginning when they’re talking, Anna and Betty, and Anna says, “I do think we were that interesting, don’t you that we could have made the boys take a look at us?” She says, “I think we were fabulous. We were stars in the sky. We were everything, and I think we still are.” Then at the end, so that that’s like, that was part of what they were dealing with. Then when you get to the end and she says, “I really wasn’t mad at August, but as an actor, I wanted to feel those words in my mouth. I wanted to feel that in my mouth, and I wanted to feel everything about it, which is why I had to take off my clothes,” which is like, “Okay, we got the radical revolutionary reason, but we also got as an actor, she wanted to say those speeches, which are so wonderful.” I have a lot of friends who are actors, so I know they are always wanting the sensual pleasure of the words.

So I thought that being able to take the politics of that piece and also deal with the actor desiring to embrace in a very physical sexual almost way, the language, because it’s so beautiful and round in your mouth, that all of that we don’t get to talk about ourselves in complicated ways all the time. Sometimes we will stop at the point of saying, “We’re mad at August Wilson,” as opposed to saying, “Let’s look at how we really feel about that. We’re not just mad, we’re really in love with what we are trying to give. We love the beauty of that language, just like everybody, and we want to also let Rose have something to say from the top of the Margaret Mitchell House. We want all of that.” So that play was a real pleasure to me because I want to make sure that we have a voice moving forward so that young women, and you’re very young to me, young women like you will not only have the plays, but you will understand the critique that was going on about the people who made those plays.

So you’ll know that we actually did have those conversations, drinking wine and saying, “Oh, why can’t this and why can’t that?” And nobody’s going to do it if we don’t do it. We have to have the dialogue, the things that are concern to us as part of the major voices in American theatre and not just, “We’re mad at white people. We’re mad at white people.” It’s like, “If there’s no white people in the room, then what do we talk about?” which was always my thing growing up in all-Black neighborhoods, all-Black schools, it’s like I always say to white people, “The thing is we don’t always talk about y’all. We’re not always worried about you. We’re not always wondering, ‘Are you going to beat us up? Are you going to jail us?’ and all that. Sometimes we talk about love. Sometimes we talk about work. Sometimes we talk about whatever human beings talk about. You are not the center of every conversation in the world,” but they think they are, so they continue to produce those plays where they’re at the center. They continue to think that that’s the story because we keep telling it to them, because we want to get produced. We want to make a living, but it’s like, I think the interesting thing is going to be moving forward, how much we can move away from that into simply telling the stories we want to tell and assume those stories are strong enough and connect it to other human beings enough that anybody will want to see it in the same way that I love Ibsen. I can imagine someone who is Norwegian loving the work that we do as Black women in this country, because we’re human. We write about human stuff.

Jordan: Yeah. I love the focus, the intracommunal conversations that you’re interested in, in fostering and the themes of love and things that don’t necessarily have to do with racial trauma, and also your interest in history is something that is very striking to both of us. I feel like as I’m getting these wonderfully rich, complex, nuanced Black characters, I’m also getting such a slice of history in all of the work that you produce. So I’m curious about your interest in history and why that is appealing to you. Also, when you say, I know that your career in theatre has been with Black theatres focusing primarily on submitting your work to Black theatres and how do you feel that being in those environments has also supported that perspective that you bring on history?

Pearl: I’m a person who, I get most of my history through stories. My husband can name all the wars, chronological order, all the presidents in chronological order. My mind so does not work that way. So it’s like the history that I get, I get from stories from plays, from novels, and I’ve always been that way so that there are periods that are of great interest to me, not necessarily because I want to write a history play, but because Harlem Renaissance has always been so appealing to me. I wish I had been there. Then so when I wrote Blues for an Alabama Sky, I was thinking about the Renaissance, but then I said, “We always kind of glory in the Renaissance. What happened right after that? What happened when the stock market crashed?” But it grew out of my interest in the Harlem Renaissance, same thing with Flyin’ West.

The idea of setting off from the South with a wagon train full of Black folks because you’re not going to stay in the Confederacy no matter what is like, I can’t imagine the courage that it took to do something like that. So that the periods are really something that will be a period that I’m already interested in, and then I have to find the story, who’s in there moving around? What are they doing? But the Black theatres, most of the beginning of my career as a writer was when I was doing what you’re talking about. There were many more Black theatres at that time, and I would just send the script and say, “I’m a playwright. Here’s my play. I wish y’all would do it.” So many of the smaller ones would write back and say, “Wow, we love this play, but we don’t have any money, so I guess we can’t do it.” I would say, well, but you do work somewhere, right? You do have lights on when you do your shows and all of that?”

They would say, “Yes,” and I said, “Well, you have some money. What we are talking about is you don’t have a lot of money. So how about send me $25 and five copies of the program, then I can prove that I’m a working playwright. I can begin to build a portfolio.” They’ll be like, “Wow, $25. Okay. We can do that.” So that what I was trying to do was to get the plays in front of people, get the theatres to understand that they could have a relationship with a playwright where they could work out what the fair exchange of funds should be, but that they had to want to do that. I’ve never had any conscious, “Okay, now I’m working for Black theatre, so I’m going to write about Black history.” I haven’t really thought of it that way, and actually most of the plays that I wrote before I’d started working with Kenny Leon at the Alliance Theatre, most of them were contemporary.

They were set right now, the plays that I wrote for Just Us Theatre when I was in residence there for five years, and the plays were contemporary. They were taking place right now. But then when I had an idea about Flyin’ West, I actually had the only mystical experience I’ve ever had with a play where I was driving down the freeway, and I heard Miss Leah’s voice so real in my head that I thought someone had gotten in my car while it was in the parking lot and I hadn’t seen her. I turned around to see if there was somebody talking and she was talking about how after slavery all her children had died and how she set off walking West, and if she had wings, she’d set off flyin’ west. I’m saying to myself, “First of all, I’m losing my mind. Second of all, I’m driving on the Atlanta freeways and I’m not a good driver, so that’s not good.” But the third thing is, “That’s a great line. I need to pull off the freeway and write that down.”

So I pulled off the freeway, pulled into a parking lot in an apartment building and wrote down what Miss Leah was saying to me. That’s the only reason I ever ended up with Nicodemus, Kansas, because when I looked at what she was talking about, I said, “Wow, how can I make this contemporary?” Because it’s a lot easier to write a play about what’s going on in your own life right now, so I’m saying “Nicodemus, Kansas? I don’t know anything about Black folks going West. I don’t know about exodusers. I don’t know about any of that. Maybe I can make her really, really old.” I said, “Come on. That’s cheap. You can’t do that. How old can she be that she’s still in Atlanta talking about things and that’s not where she wanted to be?” Whatever put that voice in my head, and I’ve never had that experience before or since, but whatever spirit wanted to talk about those ancestors had no interest in contemporary in Atlanta. She wanted to be in Nicodemus, Kansas, so I had to go read all this stuff about Nicodemus, Kansas.

So I had to educate myself and read letters home. Women wrote a lot of letters home, diaries, there was all that stuff, really, really rich material. I realized that a lot of the things they were writing about had to do with isolation and abuse. They were living way out from anybody else so that if their husbands or the men around them were treating them badly, there was nobody to call for help. I’m thinking to myself, “This is exactly like people, women today having to deal with abusive situations. How do you get help? Who can help you, and what do you have the right to do in response to that abuse?” The play has what my response is: feed them that poison pie, bury them under the ground, and keep it moving.

But the idea that that grew out of my actually doing the necessary research for that, and then being able to say, “Well, I’m not shoehorning this in, these women are actually writing about this so that it’s legitimate for me to put a story in that has it,” that was a great pleasure to me. I really enjoyed how that play evolved, but that’s the only one where anyone made me go somewhere. The Harlem Renaissance, I wanted to go there. Bourbon at the Border, I know a lot of movement people who were destroyed by the racism in bigotry that they encountered, so that a lot of the plays that are contemporary are still things that I know myself, but the other ones are, what am I drawn to? What period would I like to move around in and see what that would be? Because it allows you to put yourself places where you can’t be otherwise.

Pearl: What was it like to be Angel? What was it like to be Guy? What was it like to be all of those people and realize in blues that they were dealing with contraception, that the Garveyites were saying, “That is genocide. No Black women should be using contraception. We should be having as many babies as we can.” So it’s like when you look sometimes there’s issues that women have been dealing with for generations, but they haven’t shown up in the literature because men are writing the plays. Men are writing the novels, and they have different issues that they’re dealing with. But for me, if I can be reading about another period and just see it bump up against the issues that we are dealing with now as women, it’s just wonderful, because then you can bring that conversation into the light where it’s only been in the smaller spaces that we inhabit when it’s just us.





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