In Pearl Cleage's play A Song for Coretta, Andrea Frye plays a woman who knew Coretta Scott King while on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement. In real life, Frye never met King, but the actress and stage director came close. While a Spelman student in the early 1970s, Frye waited tables at the Clock of Fives restaurant at the Hyatt Regency.
"Coretta came in with her kids one day and took center stage. All of us watched her with awe. She presided over her brood like a queen and was thoroughly engaged with them. She was a woman of great majesty."
King remained an icon of the Civil Rights Movement after her husband Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968, and her death on Jan. 30, 2006, was both a cultural and generational touchstone. King's funeral provided A Song for Coretta with both its inspiration and its setting. Cleage wrote the play within a year of King's death not only to pay tribute to her life, but to examine the incomplete legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. Frye and director Crystal Dickinson have discovered that the play raises hard questions about the state of the African-American community.
Although from different generations, Frye and Dickinson each had essentially the same perspective of Coretta Scott King before delving into the play. Dickinson, 32, says she always found most of her inspiration in life from her parents and teachers.
"Like the majority of the people in the world, I thought of Coretta Scott King as Martin Luther King's wife, and that's about it. For most people, if you watch [the award-winning PBS documentary] 'Eyes on the Prize,' that's how you think of her."
A Song for Coretta had its world premiere at Spelman College in February 2007. Dickinson, Frye and most of the cast worked on both productions, which deepened their point of view of King. "Members of the crew who are gay or bisexual have talked about how she was an activist for them. Now I associate her not with just the Civil Rights Movement, but with civil rights for everybody. And I found out how much she was loved – people walked for miles and miles just to get to her funeral."
Dickinson, who recently moved to New York but has performed on many Atlanta stages as an actor, sounds like she still can't quite believe she's directed a new play by Cleage, an Atlanta-based author and playwright whose 1997 novel, What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, was an Oprah Book Club selection. As a teacher at Spelman College, Dickinson directed some of the playwright's lesser-known one-acts as part of the school's "String of Pearls" festival when Cleage became Spelman's Cosby Chair professor. Cleage was so impressed that she asked Dickinson to direct A Song for Coretta's world premiere. "I about near dropped to the ground," Dickinson says.
Frye, meanwhile, was a veteran of Cleage's plays, having either directed or performed in many of their major Atlanta productions, including Flyin' West, Blues for an Alabama Sky and Bourbon at the Border. She admires the poetry in Cleage's work and remarks, "August Wilson writes wonderful monologues that actors love to play. Pearl writes lovely conversations that audiences love to hear."
Dickinson says Cleage's work as a playwright makes her job easy as a director. "Her words help so much, they don't give us much work to do. If you just get out of the way of it, you'll be OK. It's not like 'OK, how do we make THIS moment work?' Because the play is called A Song for Coretta, I thought of the actors and characters as instruments in the song, and asked myself, what do they sound like? What do they add to the melody? We spent a lot of time talking about the characters. We talked, fought, cried and laughed."
A one-act play about 75 minutes long, A Song for Coretta offers a conversation among five African-American women waiting in line to pay their respects at King's funeral. They come from different walks of life, including a U.S. soldier and a woman displaced by Hurricane Katrina, but the sharpest conflicts emerge between Frye's Helen Robinson, a fiftysomething veteran of the Civil Rights Movement, and DeAndrea Crawford's Keisha, an impoverished, 17-year-old pregnant girl.
"I see myself in all of the women, except the soldier," Dickinson says. "I kind of grew up like Keisha – I grew up tough in New Jersey and had to fight for myself. I also feel like Miss Helen is the 'every' voice. We all look at and judge the 17-year-old carrying a baby on her hip."
Frye and Dickinson both say that when Helen speaks about the declining of the African-American community, she receives affirmations from the audience, like a congregation approving of a church sermon. Frye says, "She feels like we have abandoned our shining moment as a people. She's particularly hurt by the younger generation and what they have chosen to keep at the center of their lives. When Helen espouses her political views, I hear people in the audience say their 'Amens' and 'MM-hmms.' But at the end of the play, they spin on a dime. They're forced not to just amend their point of view, but consider the danger of what they've been agreeing to."
Dickinson admires the play's ability to change an audience's opinion. "We meet a 17-year-old who doesn't know who Booker T. Washington was, has never heard of World War II, but by the end of the play, we realize that the state of the 17-year-old is not entirely her fault. We're asked to think about what it is that the old guard didn't do that brought us here. It's a question for black America that we've talked about a lot in the table readings. I don't think anyone has got an answer."
A Song for Coretta dramatizes a milestone in Georgia history, with Coretta Scott King being the first woman and the first African-American to lie in state at the rotunda of the Georgia capital. Although the production's official opening night is Martin Luther King Jr. Day and it runs well into Black History Month, Cleage offers nearly the opposite of a nostalgia piece. Frye says, "It engages us in a conversation of not being judgmental. No matter who we were, this is what we are. How do you deal with it?"
The play doesn't promise a solution, just a song of hope.