Way back in August, I had the pleasure of sitting down to talk with Pearl Cleage, best-selling author and playwright of The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of Your Presence at a Celebration of Their First One Hundred Years, which is premiering at the Alliance Theatre, from Oct. 20-Nov. 14.
I met her at a restaurant called Landon’s, just off Cascade Road. It’s a fabulous bistro that’s very proud of being one of Ms. Cleage’s favorite haunts. We spoke over lunch in Landon’s private dining room, which had on display copies of Ms. Cleage’s novels.
So tell me, what the inspiration was behind The Nacirema Society?
I wanted to write a play that was set in a time of tremendous upheaval for the country, but I didn’t want to write specifically about the civil rights movement and all the serious things that were going on, because I was alive and well and participating in all of that, and I understand that in the midst of all that struggle and movement, we also had fun, had love affairs, had dances, had family secrets had all the stuff that people ordinarily had. So, I wanted to write a play that looks at this one family — the Dunbar family. They’re in Montgomery, Ala., in 1964 … surrounded by all of the movement activities, but Grace Dunbar, who is the main character, is putting together a cotillion, and she is not happy that these wild radicals are going to mess up her cotillion by having demonstrations in the middle of it. She’s trying to ignore history and go on with her life the way it’s always been, which, as we know, cannot happen. You cannot hold back history for a cotillion; that does not work.
I kind of wanted to do that because it’s interesting to me to hear people now talk about the ’60s as if every person alive was a radical marching down the street. I know that was not true, so I wanted to look at a character like that. Grace is definitely not a movement person. Her friend Catherine is not a movement person, either. They’re more society matrons.
I knew people like everybody in the play. A lot of the discussion in the play is between the grandmother (Grace) and the granddaughter, who certainly represents a newer generation with new ideas about what she wants to do, how she wants to do it and all of that. I definitely knew a lot of people who were frightened of the change. In the abstract, they knew it was a good thing; intellectually, they knew it was a good thing. But, they had made a place for themselves in the confines of the world as it was, and they were nervous, as people always are, at the changes that were coming so fast. And, actually, that moment in the country’s history reminds me of this one, because so many things are changing politically and socially in this country. And some people are really happy and excited about it, and some people are really nervous and scared about it, but it all, you know, works out. I think we’ll laugh at some of the things we thought were so critical and so important.
I think our definitions of race are changing by the minute. I think our definitions of the choices people have the right to make about their personal lives are changing by the minute. And I think in 40 years, when my grandchildren are almost 50, I think they’ll look back at this the same way we look back at the 60s and think, “How could we ever have lived in a country where people were denied the right to vote based on their skin color? How could we have ever lived in a country where people who loved each other are not allowed to marry?” In 30-40 years, we won’t even think of it as something real. We’ll look back on it as young people do as something like the Depression. My grandparents were always talking about the Depression. To me, it was like a chapter in a history book. But to them, it was very real. So I think that all of these times that we’re living through, we’ll always remember, but I think the people who are just being born, your daughter and my grandchildren, they’ll be like, “What? You had a problem with what?” You can see young people changing everything about how young people interact with each other.
And then, of course, we have no idea what the technology is doing to how we interact with each other. I’m not so optimistic about that. I’m one of the ones who’s a little nervous about that, but that’s probably just because I don’t get it. I used to think that an electric typewriter was the most amazing thing in the world, so it’s taken me a while.
But I think we’ll be fine. I think in 30-40 years, we’ll laugh at this. And somewhere, 80-year-old ex-President Barack Obama will be writing his memoirs again and it’ll be lovely.
How did you make the transition from writing plays to writing novels? And do you prefer writing one over the other?
I’m at the heart of it, I’m a playwright. I was trained as a playwright. I love theater, but I had an idea 10 years ago that wouldn’t fit on the stage. And [my first novel What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day] did really well. People loved it, and they offered me the chance to write another one. I look up 10 years later, and I’ve written eight. But that process is very different for me. Theater is always the one that I lean toward. I’ve had ideas for novels, specifically, because I was writing novels, but when Nacirema Society came to me, it was clearly a theater idea. These are very theatrical people.
My mind tends to go to theater if I give it permission to use whatever form it really wants; it will never choose novels, it will always do theater. And I think part of that is because of the collaboration. I love the fact that writing is such a solitary activity. If you’re writing a novel or a book, you have to actually do the writing by yourself. But with theater, once you’re done with the script, it becomes a collaborative experience. You have actors and directors and designers and producers and audience, ultimately, so it’s a very different kind of experience involving a whole lot more people. You write a novel by yourself, you send it to the publisher, they publish it, and people experience it by themselves. So, you never have that moment as a playwright where you hope it works, and you get to stand at the back of the theater on opening night and see if it works. You don’t know if a novel works or not unless someone stops you in the grocery store and says, “Oh I love that book.” But with a play, you know instantly because you can hear people responding. You can hear if they laugh at the stuff you thought was funny, [and hear] whether or not they cry if something bad happens to a character that you cared about.
The collaborative nature of theater makes it the most appealing to me, so I’m really happy with this play, with the experience so far. I’ve been talking to some of the actors who live here and we’re all beside ourselves waiting to get into rehearsal. It’s like, “OK, we’ve done the readings we’re ready, everybody’s ready!” Rehearsals start at the end of this month [August 2010]. We’re all just bouncing around doing the work that we’re doing, but we’re all got one eye going into rehearsal.
Have you worked with some of the actors before?
Andrea Frye actually is one of the first people I met when I came to Atlanta in 1969, and she’s been in several of my plays. She was in Flyin’ West, and she also originated the role of Rosa in Bourbon at the Border. Trazana Beverly was also in Flyin’ West, she played the same role as Andrea, actually, so we’ve got two Sophies in there. Kara Kendrick was one of my students at Spellman, so I knew her from that. She’s a wonderful performer, but it’s nice to have a student come back around, too. And then Jasmine Guy I’ve known since she was about eight years old, and she was in my play last season at True Colors, she was in Blues for an Alabama Sky. So, I’ve met more than half the cast, but I’ve worked with maybe half of them before, which is always fun.
Did you request certain actors be auditioned for this production?
I do suggest actors that should be called in, but I try to be conscious of the lines: There are certain things a director is supposed to do and certain things a playwright is supposed to do. [Nacirema Society director] Susan Booth is just wonderful in terms of being a collaborator. I knew people who were interested in reading for the roles, so I told [casting director] Jody Feldman about them, and they did read them in New York.
When we had the first reading of the play in Montgomery two summers ago, Andrea Frye was the person who read Catherine. She was so amazing and wonderful and perfect for that character that when we scheduled to produce the play, I very much wanted her to do it if she was interested in doing it. And she was interested, so that worked out wonderfully. But the others all came to the auditions and read for Susan.
When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
I’ve always done it. Since I was a little kid and learned how to write, I’ve always written. And I liked theater because it was real people moving around. It was that collaborative thing. You could see the characters because they were in front of you. I was one of those kids that made their cousins get together and do the Thanksgiving play. When I decided to go to college, I went to Howard University and they had a playwriting program, a BFA program, so I got to set in writing plays my first semester. When I came here [to Atlanta], I finished at Spellman’s drama department. I knew I wanted to write plays, and I had the dream of moving to New York. But it ended up that I came here, which has worked out great for me. There’s always been a really active theater community in Atlanta. Sometimes we have hard times, like anywhere else, but there’s always been a wonderful pool of actors and directors and designers here. For a playwright, it was wonderful. And it’s also not the same kind of high-stress [environment] that you find in a place like New York. That can actually be so intense that … I know people who have gone to New York to work and have just been silenced — just by the competition, just by the fact of the big, fast city and all the competition. It wasn’t a good environment for them. But, I’ve found that Atlanta has been such a welcoming place, and I’ve been able to work with just extraordinary people. So I’m the one that cries when the really wonderful people decide to go to New York. I say, “Don’t leave me!” But they come back. It’s been a really good place for me to do work.
This is your fourth play at the Alliance Theatre. How did you first get involved with them?
My relationship with the Alliance began when Kenny Leon became the artistic director. I had known Kenny for many years. And when he came to the Alliance as the artistic director, he called me — we had been working together in much smaller theaters who were always trying to put enough money together to do a season — and when he got to the Alliance he called me and said, “I have got money to commission plays!” We were so enamored with that whole idea — that he actually had money to commission plays —and he asked me if I had something that I’d like to work on there. I had just started working on Flyin’ West, so I said, “Absolutely!” I can’t think of a playwright in this world who’d say, “No, I don’t have an idea. You’ve got a commission, but I can’t do it, no.” We always say, “Yes!”
So, that was the first time Kenny and I collaborated on a play, and I had a wonderful experience. And they commissioned another one, which was Blues for an Alabama Sky. And I was able to introduce Kenny to Phylicia [Rashad], which was wonderful, because we had gone to Howard [University] together. And then I did Bourbon at the Border there. So I did three plays at the Alliance during his tenure, and then I started writing novels, so I was away from theater for a good while.
Then I was in residence at Spellman College, and I wrote a short play after Coretta Scott King died, called A Song for Coretta, and it just reminded me of how much I had been missing theater. So, I finished the novel I was committed to and started working on Nacirema Society. I was at the literary festival in Alabama, and I spoke to [Alabama Shakespeare Festival] about the idea of the play. They were very excited about it, because they were in Montgomery and the play takes place in Montgomery. They asked me if I was interested in commissioning, and I said, “Absolutely!” So, they commissioned it and, as the project evolved, it became a co-production with the Alliance, which has worked out wonderfully. So, this will be my fourth collaboration with the theater, but my first with Susan.
You said you went to Howard, which reminded me of the Spike Lee movie School Daze. In the movie, there seemed to be a lot of stress put on skin color, as people within the African-American community discriminated against each other. Did you experience anything like that there?
It happened. Within the African-American community, there have historically been color issues because of the fact of slavery. Because you had slaves who had been raped by the master, so then you have a class of people who were the result of that forced sexual contact between the masters and the slaves.
But in terms of what Spike was talking about, I never experienced anything like that. I grew up in a very radical family that was very clear about what we were racially. Many members of my family are very light, but nobody was confused about “are we this or are we that?” — none of that. We were always very conscious of who we were and very involved in the civil rights activities, so I found that movie really funny. I knew there were those sort of things, you know: Are the homecoming queens all going to be a certain color? Are the beauties on the campus always going to have a certain kind of hair? and all of that. But, I was in the fine arts department and kind of a radical bohemian, so we didn’t care about that stuff. We were always marching on somebody: Marching on the sororities, marching on the fraternities, you know, marching on the department chair; it didn’t matter. That never was a problem for me.
Who were your favorite writers, growing up?
I would have to say Langston Hughes, first of all. My mother used to read Langston Hughes to us like some mothers read fairy tales to their kids at night. And one of the things she read to us was The Big Sea, which was the first volume of his autobiography. He starts when he’s 20 years old, and he’s joined the merchant marines. He’s standing on the deck of this ship as it’s pulling away from the shore in Sandy Hook in New Jersey, and he realizes that he has been living in his head. He actually wants to live his life, so he takes all the books he brought with him and throws them off, into the water. Now as a kid who loved books, I was like, “My mother would kill me if I ever did this!” But it was such a great story, because what he’s writing about is his discovery of himself as a writer. So, he would probably be my favorite writer. He probably still is my favorite writer.
But in terms of plays, I’m not an avant-garde kind of playwright, I’m a very traditional kind of playwright, so the playwrights that I loved were Tennessee Williams, Ibsen — I loved Ibsen, I loved Tennessee Williams, I loved George Bernard Shaw. But probably Ibsen and Tennessee Williams are the ones that I love the most. And it’s funny, because in Ibsen, the women, you know, are so fierce — in A Doll’s House, the woman leaves at the end. After she’s gone through all of that stuff with her husband, she leaves; and Hedda Gabler burns up the manuscript and shoots herself and all of that — and in Tennessee Williams plays, the women are overwhelmed by their lives; they never go and slam that door, they go off to the mental hospital at the end or they are there alone because their son has left them and their husband has left them and they’re there with the glass collection and all of that. But I think the female characters in all those plays were so strong and complicated and richly drawn that I loved them.
And I love Lorraine Hainsbury. A Raisin in the Sun was a very important play to me. I saw a touring show, which must have been the New York company that came through Detroit, which is where I grew up. And they did the show in a high school auditorium. So we all got dressed up and went to see the play, and it was packed. There was not one seat. And people were so into that show, it was just quiet in there. People were actually leaning forward in their chairs and, in the end, people just exploded. People were just so moved by it and excited by it. We all leapt to our feet and everything. A part of me is so appreciating the play, but another part of me is like, “I wanna do that. I think I can do that.” I was lucky. I had parents who were very supportive of the fact that I was interested in writing, so they took me to the theater and they took me to concerts and dance performances. I was very much able to understand that being an artist was not something far off and romantic and different; it was something that was accessible to me and that [I] had to work hard at it the same way as you would anything else. So I was fortunate in that my parents didn’t say, “You want to do what?” Although, when I said that I wanted to go to college to major in playwriting, I think they probably second-guessed all those theater trips and said, “How are you going to make a living at that?” But that’s always a question when your child says, “I want to be a playwright.” How are you going to feed yourself?
And how did you support yourself?
Oh I did everything. I’ve been very lucky though, I’ve never written a play that didn’t get produced. In college, they did my plays, and here I was working with Just Us Theater for a while — they did my plays. So I’ve been very fortunate in terms of finding a place and a network very quickly. [But] I wasn’t able to make a living at it until Flyin’ West, [in] 1994, when it began to tour. That was the moment I realized I could begin to make a living at it, which was a wonderful, surprising thing.
I did other things [to make money]. I did public relations. I wrote speeches for people. I did advertising, which was not a great fit because … they don’t care about the truth in advertising. I would say, “But this isn’t true!” and they’d look at me like, “What are you talking about? We don’t care. We’re selling stuff.” But I did just about everything you can do that has to do with writing. I worked in City Hall for the mayor; I worked in Maynard Jackson’s office for two years and that was very exciting and wonderful. (I was the press secretary.) But I also realized, doing that job, that if I was serious about writing, I couldn’t have a demanding full-time job like that. I was up one night — I used to write very late at night — and I had just put my daughter to bed, who was little at the time, and my husband had gone to bed, and it was about one o’clock in the morning, and I was trying to write a love poem, and I couldn’t the mayor’s voice out of my head. I thought, “OK I have to quit this job. I love this man and I love writing speeches just for him, but I do not want his voice dictating love poems to me.” So, I left that and that was the last full-time job I ever had. After that, it was all freelance or part-time so I could spend the bulk of my time as a writer. And I think that’s one of the things that’s always been an advantage to me. I’ve always taken myself seriously as a writer, and I arranged my life so I’d have enough time to do that first. Otherwise, it’s very stressful to be working at something that’s very demanding for eight hours a day and come home to a family and then also find time to [write]. I wasn’t going to cut the family off. So, I had to find out another way to organize the rent-paying activity.
You mentioned earlier that this is your first time collaborating with Jennings Hertz Jr. Artisitic Director Susan V. Booth and that you can’t wait to get into rehearsals. What are you most excited about?
The play. The end of the play. The great blessing for me is that we’ve had time to work with it — I’ve heard it read twice all the way through, and Susan and I have been working back and forth. She’s really wonderful about asking questions rather than saying, “Why don’t you think about this” or “why don’t you think about that?” Her method is to ask you something that isn’t clear to her so you can respond to the question, which has been wonderful for tightening up and clarifying things. It’s been great, and I should probably knock on wood when I say this, but there aren’t any scenes that need any work revising; I just want to see how they work. There’s a big dinner party at the end of this play with lots of entrances and exits, and it has to move along very quickly, and Susan and I have talked a lot about that. So, I’m very interested to see it: There’s a lot of this one comes in this door and and this one comes in that door — all of those kind of screwball romantic comedies of the ’40s in Hollywood, where there’s always a mistaken identity and a big dinner party with beautiful clothes and people are mistaking this person for this one or that one. That’s kind of the spirit of this play, so I’m very interested to see that on its feet to see how they do it. The set design is wonderful; they have all those doors and entrances and exit places for people, so I’m looking forward to seeing it on its feet, moving around.
What do you hope audiences take away from the play?
I think just the fact that families all have the same stories. There’s really only five or six stories writers tell. It doesn’t matter where we’re from, or what the culture is, we’re all talking about love. We’re all talking about family. We’re talking about death. We’re talking about all the kinds of stuff that knits families together over time. And I think this play really is a family play where people will say, “Oh, this reminds me of how my grandmother tried to direct me this way, and I wanted to go this way,” which I think is the moment when culture is able to bring people closer together. You realize that this may be a German play, a play from Afghanistan, from Paris, but they’re all talking about family, about mothers and children, about lovers falling in love, you know, it’s Romeo and Juliet. How do you deal with warring families when people fall in love? How do you deal with social changes in the middle of family life? That’s the thing.
And I want people to have a good time. I think when people hear the play is set in 1964, sometimes people get the mindset that “OK, it’s going to be serious, civil rights movement,” we’re going to be fussing about stuff, we’re going to be angry about things. And this play isn’t any of that; it’s actually a romantic comedy, which is new for me, but it gave me a chance to look at these people as flawed human beings. They do things where you want to say, “Oh, don’t do that!” But they do it full out because they think that it’s going to be the best thing. Or, they keep the secret because they think they can.You can never keep a secret in a family. And they all learn that, of course, as the play goes on. But I hope people will see glimpses of their own family in these people.
You’re a very prolific writer. Where do you get the inspiration for your plays and novels?
I have no idea. I wish I knew. I think I have a … I’ve been writing for so long that I think my brain is just trained to look for stories, look for characters. My daughter is good at saying to me when we’re out somewhere, “Stop writing.” It’s not like I’m physically writing, but I’ll see somebody and I’ll start making up a story about them. Like, I wonder where they’re going. And she’s like, “I don’t know these people; I don’t care about these people. Stop writing!” But I can’t do it. I see interesting people, and I want to know the story. I want to know what happens to them.
My daughter went to school in New Orleans, and I used to go and visit her all the time. I love New Orleans. And New Orleans is a place where there are so many people who, were they outside of New Orleans they’d be regarded as eccentrics, but in New Orleans they’re just regular people. That’s the one place where she was just like, “OK, we’re going out to dinner, so don’t start asking me what I think these people are doing,” because I’m always doing it. When it comes time to pick something to focus on, I have lots of ideas moving around and then it becomes: Which is the one that’s most interesting to me, right now? What’s the one that’s going to provide a space for some characters to move around?
Was it difficult transitioning from plays to novels? Did you have a hard time fleshing out the details in the books?
Oooo yes, very, very. If you’re writing a play, you say, “It’s a beautiful summer day in Harlem. These people live in an old apartment building. They’re right across the hall from each other, and they’re 30 years old and 25 years old.” Then, the costume designer has to figure out what they have on. The set designer has to figure out how those apartments are going to work. The director has to move them around in those apartments. The lighting designer has to make it look like a beautiful summer day. And so I’m used to being able to hand somebody a script, and then they do their part.
As a novelist, you are all those people: You are the writer and the director and the lighting designer and the costumer. You have to describe everything, because you don’t have what we have in theater, which is the wonderful gift of human beings moving around. So you have to [ask yourself]: “What does this woman look like? What does this dress look like? What does the air look, smell like? What does it feel like this morning when she steps outside?” And that was very different for me.
The wonderful thing for me on this end now, coming back to theater after I’ve written so many books, is that all of those things are still — I know how to do that. I know now how to do it all myself. In theater you don’t have to, but it strengthens the part you do by yourself as a playwright.
The other thing that I have found, which is a difference in my writing plays now from what it was, is that I’m much more inclined to include more in the stage directions — more about what the character is thinking and feeling — which I know comes directly from writing novels, because most of the time plays leave that to the director and to the actor. I think that you can still leave a big enough space for everyone to do their collaborative part, but the more that you can tell the actor, the more you can tell the director, “This is the moment I’m looking for,” the better chance you have that they will be working towards the same moment, rather than saying, “Well you left a big space there, I thought thought that I would fill it up with a little tap dancing or … (laughs) whatever.” Now I’m much more likely to say, ‘It’s this, it’s this.’ But theater is just so different because you do have the, you know, human beings, moving around, talking to each other.
Do you still teach?
The last teaching I did at Spellman, three years ago, and I do brief residencies. I love teaching, but it takes a lot. It takes the same brain that writing takes. While I’m working on my own things, I’m reading 20 plays by new playwrights and really trying to help them, so that’s difficult to balance. But I do like teaching, and I know that I had some very good working playwrights as teachers, and it made all the difference to me, so I’m always conscious of trying to do that for somebody who’s young and trying to write plays.
What advice do you have for young playwrights?
As a playwright, the best advice anybody gave me was that, if you want to write plays, you’ve got to read plays, and you’ve got to go see plays. You can’t just say, “I want to write plays” and then start writing them. You have to have to read them, and you have to go see them. The best general writing advice that anybody ever gave me was that you have to do it every day. Even if it’s just a little something. But you have to do it every day in a disciplined way. And if all you have is a half an hour every day, then you have to get up and do it a half an hour every day, because then the thread is moving through. So even if you have another job, you have children you’re dealing with, you’ve got other stuff you’re doing, if you spend at least a little part of your day [writing], you can keep those characters alive in your head. And that’s still true. When I’m working on something, I try to write a little every day. I actually do it; I write every day, because then the story is ongoing. And it’s as real in my head as what’s going on in real life. But if you take even two or three days away from it, it takes two or three days to get back to where you were. So I try very hard to write every day. I think of it as if I was a musician or a ballet dancer. You know ballet dancers go to the studio every day, trumpet players play their scales every day, so I think about that with writing. And if I’m not working on a project, I keep journals, so I write in something every day, just to kind of keep my scales in shape.
Many times, if you’re an artist, you’re the only one who knows that you’re an artist. Other people think that you are a teacher or a nurse or a person who’s working at the Target or whatever else you’re doing to hold body and soul together. But, if you know that you’re a poet, a playwright or a wonderful piano player, then you have to reinforce that in your own mind so that you won’t start believing what other people think of you. You will know that whatever you do to make a living, in your heart of hearts, you are always working on that art, all the time.
Plus, if you’re doing it, it keeps you in contact with other artists. You know, if you’re writing plays, you’re hopefully not going to write them and just put them in a drawer. Once you have one, you’re going to drive someone crazy who’s putting on plays and say, “Can’t I sweep up for you? Will you read my play? Can’t I do something for you so that you can get some actors together to read this for me?” And most of the time, if you’re prepared to give something, people will work with you, because they’re artists, too. They’re looking for something good. And I know that authors may say this and actors and directors may say this is not true, but I know this is true: It all starts with a play. You can have the most wonderful actor in the world, and if they’re in a bad script, they’re going to have a terrible moment. Same thing with directors. They could be a wonderful director, but if the script is shaky, then the performances and the directing cannot save it. So that is why it’s really important, I think, for actors and directors to work more with playwrights. Work with playwrights, because they can’t do their work without us, and we can’t do our work without them. Although all of us pretend that we can, we know that we really can’t.
The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of Your Presence at a Celebration of Their First One Hundred Years plays the Alliance Theatre from Oct. 20-Nov. 14, 2010.