“What I Learned in Paris,” a world premiere, runs Sept. 5-Oct. 6 at the Alliance Theatre.
Atlanta, 1973. Fall.
The O’Jays, Paul Simon and Earth, Wind and Fire are on the radio. Maynard Jackson has just been elected the city’s first African-American mayor. And Pearl Cleage, a 25-year-old political activist who will be his press secretary for the next two-plus years, sprints through her marathon workdays with a hairstyle that stands somewhere between an Angela Davis Afro and today’s signature close-cropped style.
Cleage (rhymes with egg) is 63 now and still a political activist. She’s also a playwright of some renown, which is where that pivotal time in Atlanta history comes in. It’s the jumping-off point for her newest play, the political romance What I Learned in Paris.
“It’s about the impossibility of telling the truth, unless you’re telling the truth about everything,” she says. (To hear more, click HERE.)
Atlanta in 1973 “was the most exciting place I had ever been,” she says. Jackson was making history. Charis Books & More, with its feminist leanings, was just opening. The city was home to active anti-war and anti-Nixon movements. And Cleage was part of a drama group that created “happenings” at Atlanta shopping centers.
The Atlanta air crackled, and she couldn’t get enough.
Cleage first encountered Jackson in 1969, shortly after moving here from Detroit. He was running for vice mayor when she saw him on TV, criticizing the way police had handled a shoplifter they’d shot and killed in the middle of a downtown street.
“He was amazing,” she recalls, her hands helping tell the story. “He really was larger than life.”
His intelligence and passion impressed her, but she didn’t know who he was. When she asked, she was told: “He’s going to be the next mayor.”
A few years later, when Jackson did run for mayor, she volunteered. “I was a writer, and I wanted to assist any way I could,” she says. The candidate came to her home himself and told her: “The city needs you.” She went from writing speeches while he campaigned to trading bons mots with the press in City Hall.
Those experiences helped inform What I Learned in Paris, which is about a group of friends in the midst of a dynamic time in Atlanta.
“These people are realizing the light on them is so bright that any contradiction between what they say and what they do will be shown in deep relief,” she says.
It’s also about gender dynamics.
Yes, says Cleage, who referenced her early ’70s journals when she began writing. Entry after entry spoke of gender politics in her life and the lives around her:
“My husband doesn’t understand this.”
“My boss doesn’t understand that.”
“That man at that party last night was so sexist.”
Those revelations helped shape her script, her second play in two years to receive a world premiere at the Alliance Theatre.
Writer, activist, storyteller — Cleage is all these and more. Alliance Artistic Director Susan V. Booth, in fact, calls her “Citizen Pearl.”
She’s written about African-American pioneers in the American West, 1930s Harlem, Mississippi civil rights workers, two women in a bus station, Coretta Scott King and African-American high society in Montgomery, Ala. Her next play is already percolating. It, too, will be set in the city too busy to hate.
“At this moment,” she says, ” I am really obsessed with Atlanta stories.”