Atlanta playwright and novelist Pearl Cleage delved into her own history to research her new play, What I Learned in Paris, which makes its world premiere at the Alliance Theatre on Sept. 5. The romantic comedy takes place in a Midtown townhouse on the eve of Maynard Jackson's 1973 election as Atlanta's first African-American mayor. Cleage took part in Jackson's game-changing campaign as a speechwriter, then served as his press secretary for two and a half years.
"It was the hardest job I ever had in my life," Cleage recalls of working for the late, larger-than-life politician over coffee at an Alliance Theatre conference room. "He was so hardworking — he'd call you at 5:30 in the morning and ask, 'Did I wake you up?' And our answer was always 'No, Mr. Mayor, how can I help you?' When he took office, he had two things to deal with: the high level of expectations from African-American voters and some level of anxiety from white voters. He wanted people to know that he was going to be a good mayor for Atlanta, and it was wonderful to be a part of that."
To flesh out her memories from nearly 40 years ago, Cleage turned to the Atlanta history book Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn as well as the research material gathered by Alliance Theatre dramaturge Celise Kalke. Cleage's primary sources came from her own journals, which she's kept for years in spiral-bound notebooks that now fill countless boxes. Cleage made some unexpected discoveries that changed the shape of the play. "When I went back, I thought they'd be all about electoral politics, but there's lots of fussing about men in them. 'This one is so chauvinistic!' and things like that."
Cleage, now 63, realized that her comedy should address Atlanta's gender politics of the early 1970s, as well as the racial ones, which squares with her memories of working with Jackson. "Maynard was trying to handle the city's racial politics, and he'd be annoyed with me for bringing up gender," she recalls. "There'd be clubs in Atlanta that would extend Maynard memberships, but no woman would be allowed in places like the dining room, so they'd tell me I couldn't come in. Or if I could, they'd say, 'You can't wear slacks, you have to wear a dress.' Young people today don't know how rigid things used to be."
Cleage had wanted to write about the pivotal time period for years, but waited to get some distance and perspective on that part of her life. "What brought it back to me was the night of Barack Obama's election, when Barack and his family came out. I remember looking at them and thinking, 'They're such a beautiful family, and when they wake up tomorrow morning, nothing will be same.'" Obama's election as POTUS also brought home an idea that became the play's central theme: "When you're in a situation like that, the light that shines on you is so bright, you'd better be the person you think you are."
Maynard Jackson, while mentioned throughout What I Learned in Paris, never appears on stage, and the play's five characters, though partly based on real people, are fictional. The story features three women of different ages, and Cleage says none is meant to literally represent herself. "The 25 year old is certainly as clueless as I was then, although I didn't think so back then. The 35 year old is more cynical, she's seen more things. The 50 year old says all the things I wish I'd said that the time!" she says.
The Atlanta-based author has enjoyed huge national success as a novelist, beginning with her first book, What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, published in 1997. She considers herself a playwright first, however. "I'm trained as a playwright. I fell into writing novels because I had a story that wouldn't fit on stage — it had too many characters and places. Oprah picked it for her book club, and so it did really well. I got an offer to write another, and I took it, and then six more. But novels are hard for me. You write it by yourself and experience it by yourself."
Cleage has penned theatrical period pieces such as Flyin' West and Blues for an Alabama Sky, and prefers the theater's collaborative nature. "With a play, I can write 'It's a beautiful summer afternoon in Harlem in 1930,' and hand that to the designer," she says. "In theater, you become part of a community of people — actors, designers, directors, and ultimately the audience." The community surrounding What I Learned in Paris includes director Susan V. Booth and the cast, Crystal Fox, Danny Johnson, January LaVoy, Eugene H. Russell IV, and Kelsey Scott.
Cleage recently donated 86 boxes of her documents to Emory University and says that her archive has inspired at least one other writing project. "I've been looking through my journals, and it's amazing that I survived when I was a 25 year old," she laughs. "I want to use excerpts for a nonfiction book that'll be tentatively called Things I Should Have Told My Daughter: Lies, Lessons and Love Affairs." The amount of history one can find in old spiral-bound notebooks should not be underestimated.