TOP: Terry Burrell (left) and Tinashe Kajese-Bolden. Photo illustration: Alliance Theatre.
In Pearl Cleage’s Hospice + Pointing at the Moon, A-list actors Terry Burrell and Tinashe Kajese-Bolden play the same woman at 2 stages in her life.
AND NOW, for something old (1983) and something new from Atlanta playwright Pearl Cleage: two one-acts folded into a single piece of theater.
Hospice and Pointing at the Moon are both two-character, conversation-centric plays focused on the pull of close relationships. They wrestle with the complexities of womanhood and how a parent’s love — or a longing for that love — shapes each of us.
Both feature the same house in Atlanta’s West End and involve the character of Jenny Anderson, who at times in her life has lived in this house, which once belonged to her grandparents.
In Hospice, the older play, Jenny is 30 and very pregnant. In Pointing at the Moon, she’s 60 and a respected scholar. Her desire to understand her mother in Hospice becomes the center of her life in Pointing at the Moon, a world premiere. Hospice won five AUDELCO awards, recognizing excellence in black theater, for its 1980s’ off-Broadway run.
The Alliance Theatre has cast Atlanta A-listers Terry Burrell and Tinashe Kajese-Bolden as the two actors. Both play Jenny at different stages in the character’s life and both are coming off fairly recent successes. Burrell (Ethel at the Alliance) earned great reviews and sold-out audiences for her work as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill at Theatrical Outfit. Kajese-Bolden (the Alliance’s Shakespeare in Love) has been riding high since winning a 2017 Suzi Bass Award for her direction of Dania Gurira’s Eclipsed at Synchronicity Theatre.
Hospice lay dormant for years until recently, when Cleage decided to write a follow-up. “I wanted to see if I could catch up with Jenny,” she says. “I wondered what choices she had made, and I wanted to see what the effect of having a mother like that had been.”
Cleage is “giddy” about bringing her one-acts to fruition with Burrell, Kajese-Bolden and director Timothy Douglas, with whom she worked on Blues for an Alabama Sky in 1999.
“When you’ve got two amazing actors like Terry and Tinashe, who are operating at such a high level, a good playwright should not get in their way,” Cleage says, good-naturedly.
“Just having Pearl in the rehearsal room is an unbelievable gift,” Kajese-Bolden says, returning the admiration. She describes Cleage’s writing as “poetic and physical.”
When putting characters together, Kajese-Bolden says, she approaches them like an anthropologist. “I really dig into the fiber of who my characters are. I want to know the background, the whole family tree. I have all kinds of quirky questions that an audience doesn’t necessarily ask or even need to know.
“Pearl is the kind of playwright with all of the answers and so much back story. But she doesn’t push any of it on you. What I love is that she quietly waits. And when you pose a question, she knows every detail, like where the character got her groceries and which books are in her room.”
Burrell hasn’t worked with Cleage before but has long been an admirer. “I want do right by her and give it everything possible because she has such confidence in us,” says Burrell, whose Broadway credits include Dreamgirls and Thoroughly Modern Millie.
The two actors, who hadn’t worked together before, did an informal reading of Hospice for Cleage long before rehearsals began.
“It didn’t take us long to know we could do that dance of relaxing with each other and taking chances,” Burrell says.
“We’re already past the niceties and politeness,” Kajese-Bolden says. “We can dive right in and be gutsy and daring.”
In Hospice, Jenny and her ailing mother are hardly into niceties. There’s hurt, baggage, misunderstanding. There are things to settle, or to at least try to understand — and time’s running out. In Moon, Jenny is still wrestling with plenty, including our present-day political turbulence and her hopes for the #MeToo movement.
There’s a simplicity to the plays but also “a quiet, burning inferno,” says Kajese-Bolden. “We’re so inundated by breaking news and ‘shocking’ this and that, that I think we almost become desensitized to having deep, meaningful conversations. Pearl has this quiet power to demand that we sit down, lean in and engage with our real lives and relationships.”
Cleage hopes theatergoers will leave thinking about their own mothers or, perhaps, unfinished business with someone else.
“I always want to give people the sense that yes, life is complicated, but you can do this, you can get through,” she says. “The hardest things of all are often the most personal.”