A woman of many words, and many causes

Pearl Cleage, with two plays in town and a new novel coming out soon, has lots to say and more to care about.

March 04, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

You'd never know Pearl Cleage isn't a fan of telephones - that she usually keeps her home phone unplugged during the day.

Once she commits to a phone interview, Cleage launches into it with passion. Ideas, opinions and words, words, words issue forth a mile a minute.

"I'm a fast talker. I get excited about these things," the 52-year-old playwright, novelist and essayist says from her Atlanta home. In a wide-ranging conversation, a few of "these things" include feminism, black nationalism, her upbringing as the daughter of an activist Detroit preacher, and her new novel, a sequel to the best-selling "What Feels Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day."

But the specific reason Cleage is willing - make that eager - to chat on the phone is that her two most popular plays can be seen at Baltimore theaters this month. "Flyin' West" ends its four-week run at Arena Players next Sunday, and "Blues for an Alabama Sky" opens at Everyman Theatre March 23. Although the productions were planned independently, together they constitute a kind of mini-Cleage festival. "I love it! I just love it!" says the playwright, who met with members of both theaters during a brief stopover in Baltimore earlier this winter.

The two plays are about very different periods of history. "Flyin' West" is set in the all-black pioneer town of Nicodemus, Kan., at the end of the 19th century, and "Blues for an Alabama Sky" takes place in Harlem in the waning days of the Harlem Renaissance. But despite their divergent settings, the plays share a number of characteristics typical of Cleage's work.

For starters, the protagonists in both are women. Giving women a chance to be heard is one of the joys of playwriting for Cleage. "The problem women have a lot is we get interrupted before we can get to the point," she explains. "The dialogue in many, many settings is still dictated by men. I enjoy having a chance to say, `OK. This is two hours when the only men who are speaking are the men into whose mouths I put words.' It's a power trip."

Indeed, "Flyin' West" (1992) was inspired by an uninterrupted woman's voice that Cleage suddenly heard in her head, the voice of a former slave named Miss Leah. It was the only time one of her plays had this sort of genesis, but she paid attention. "I was driving down the freeway, and I heard this person talking to me. I'm not a really good driver," says Cleage, so she pulled off the freeway and into an apartment parking lot so she could write down what Miss Leah had to say.

The story Miss Leah told began during slavery, when her babies were sold before their father, James, could see them. It continued after she and James had been freed and had more children, only to lose them to sickness. Then James died, too. "I buried him next to his children and I closed the door on that little piece of house we had and I started walkin' west. If I'd had wings, I'd a set out flyin' west. I needed to be some place big enough for all my sons and all my ghost grandbabies to roam around," Miss Leah says in the speech as it appears in "Flyin' West."

"I hadn't been thinking about writing about pioneers," Cleage recalls. But Miss Leah's words led her to read the Homestead Act of 1860. And that led her to letters and journals written by women at the time. Before she knew it, she was crafting a script about Nicodemus and a fictitious makeshift family of women whose matriarch is Miss Leah and whose other members include a pair of sisters and the tough-as-nails former wash woman who convinced them to leave Memphis for the frontier.

This is hardly a conventional family, but then, families created by bonds other than blood are another common theme in Cleage's writing. "Blues" (1995), for example, focuses on a family whose unrelated members consist of a gay costume designer, a showgirl, a social worker and a doctor.

"I'm always conscious of the fact that our families were so destroyed in slavery that we're still in the process of trying to heal," she says. "Based on that, what are we going to do? We can't get back the families that are lost. In both [plays], those women have created a new family. They've managed to make a family based on the quality of relationships."

Jennifer L. Nelson, the Washington-based director of Everyman's production of "Blues," says one of the underlying ideas she appreciates most in Cleage's plays is the realization that "people who were uprooted because of sociological or political factors in fact did not have to sacrifice their humanity. They find each other in these new environments and re-establish connections."

Amini Johari-Courts, director of "Flyin' West" at Arena Players, agrees. "It's so important for me for African-Americans to understand that there is this line or this thread that keeps continuously binding us in that we're constantly looking for re-connections and families that are melding and meshing, and it doesn't have to be blood relations."

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