Published in KPBS On Air Magazine April 1999
“It is the summer of 1930. Harlem, New York. The creative euphoria of the [Harlem] Renaissance has given way to the harsher realities of the Great Depression.”
That’s how it all begins, in Pearl Cleage’s 1995 “Blues for an Alabama Sky”, currently at the Old Globe Theatre (through May 9).
“We tend to look at the Harlem Renaissance when everything was going great,” says the affable, soft-spoken, straight-shooting playwright from her home in Atlanta. “I wanted to look at all those people and what happened after everything closed down.”
In the play, Angel, a down-and-out back-up singer, and Guy, a witty, flamboyant gay costume designer, fight to keep their acts together at the Cotton Club. Delia, a social worker at the Margaret Sanger Family Planning Clinic in Harlem, tries to help other women, while dealing with her own issues of liberation. Sam (Angel’s former flame), is a good-hearted doctor who drinks too much and works too hard in caring for the neighborhood poor. And into this mix comes Leland, a naïve, Christian-centered Alabaman, haunted by his past and baffled by a jarring, new, urban present.
These five powerful, well-drawn and deeply connected characters create a drama of choices, a confrontation of dreams and survival, of holding on and letting go. At its core, the play is about a woman’s ability to determine her own destiny.
“It surprised me,” confessed the 45 year old Cleage, “in my preparatory reading for “Blues” and for “Flyin’ West” (Cleage’s most popular play, written in 1992 and produced at the San Diego Repertory Theatre in 1994)– “women had the same kinds of issues then as today: loneliness, isolation, makin’ babies, what to do about men.
“In “Blues”, they’re dealing with the question of options: it’s not just about staying on 125th Street [Harlem]; there’s even the possibility of going to Paris to work with Josephine Baker. There are issues of homosexuality and homophobia, class distinctions, race relations, birth control and abortion, male-female relations, religion, economic depression and violence. The concerns black women have had over racism and sexism and classism didn’t just start with the Civil Rights movement of the sixties.”
But that’s where Cleage earned her pedigree. Massachusetts born and Detroit bred, Cleage admits, “my family was very political and my writing is very political, always connected to social issues. I’m definitely a child of the 60s.”
As playwright, novelist, writer of social commentary, performance artist, wife and mother, Cleage has tried to give African American women a strong, resonant, dramatic voice.
History repeats itself in her life as well as her work. She started college at Howard, where she was a classmate of Phylicia Rashad (best known an Clare Huxtable on ‘The Cosby Show’); later, Rashad would play Angel in the premiere production of “Blues for an Alabama Sky” at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, and again in 1996, at the Olympic Arts Festival in Atlanta. Cleage ultimately graduated from Spellman College, and years later, in 1994, she became playwright in residence at her alma mater.
In the meantime, she founded a theater company (Just Us) and a literary magazine (Catalyst), and became a regular columnist for the Atlanta Tribune. Having gone through a painful divorce, she became convinced that, as she put it in a recent article in Essence Magazine, “spontaneity, freedom, sensual exchanges and individual creativity were impossible in the confines of traditional marriage.” Then she fell in love with a long-time friend, novelist Zaron W. “Zeke” Burnett. Five years ago, they married. And things have continued on a consistent upswing.
“I lead a charmed life,” Cleage says with a tone of appreciation. “I’ve never written a play that hasn’t been produced.”
And when she tried her hand at a novel — “What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day” — it became a best-seller. This was last year, when the paperback edition was selected for the Oprah Winfrey Book Club. It’s a touching, delightfully readable, thoroughly modern story of an HIV-positive African American woman who’s looking for her roots and stumbles onto love.
“I think it’s a really good book,” Cleage asserts, “but you can’t deny the power of Oprah. She’s created a vicarious book club. People feel less solitary when they feel they’re sharing something with others. And Oprah’s got a wonderfully diverse audience: different races, ethnicities, ages. That helps universalize the work. Our work,” she says, referring to African American writers, “tends to be target-marketed.”
But now, there’s movie interest in her book, and she’s already deep into a second novel (for Avon Books) and another play (as all her others, commissioned by the Alliance Theatre). Both are modern, and set in Atlanta.
“I think it’s a good time for black women in the arts,” says Cleage. “Terry McMillan opened up a big space for black women writers. ‘Waiting to Exhale’ established the viability of black women’s work. It prompted people who hadn’t bought a book since high school. Now there’s a national community of black woman writers.”
Maybe there’s a current black writers’ renaissance (and it’s come a long way from Harlem!). But that doesn’t mean the problems have gone away.
“I’m always trying to do the same thing, no matter what medium I’m working in. Trying to find out how we can make it all better. I can’t say I need to stop fussin’ about and at men, just because I’ve found a perfect one myself. There are still tremendous problems with men and women, races and classes. Now I have a better understanding. Rather than just railing, I’m trying to figure out what to do.”
©1999 Patté Productions Inc