Pearl Cleage understands how Southerners use honorifics to show respect for elders.
She knows that “Ma’am,” drawled a certain way, shows deference, and that, these days, when younger black people say “Auntie” before uttering an elder black woman’s first name, it’s a form of veneration.
But now that she is 70, those good intentions are little comfort.
“People will call me now Miss Pearl because it says, ‘This is an older woman. We love her, but we’re respectful. So, we’re not going to call her Pearl. We call her Mama Pearl,” Cleage said. “All of that elder stuff, I’m like, ‘What are you talking about? That’s my grandmother, not me.’”
In her latest play for the Alliance Theatre, “Angry, Raucous and Shamelessly Gorgeous,” Cleage explores what it means to be an older woman in contemporary culture, a culture in which women become less celebrated and more invisible as they age. The play, which opens on March 20, also lays bare the tension between baby boomers and millennials and asks questions about that relationship. Among them: When is it time to pass the torch? Is it arrogant of an older generation to even think it has the authority to do so? And should a younger generation pay any obeisance to elder trailblazers?
Cleage has been a playwright-in-residence at the Alliance for the past eight years. It’s an important berth for a black female dramatist in a field where, apart from black theaters, African Americans can struggle to get their stories told on prominent regional stages. Then there’s the birthday factor: Cleage finds herself in an even smaller club — African-American female playwrights over 50 whose scripts are produced by major theaters. It is a lonely distinction Cleage has grown used to. So, she creates characters that reflect the world as it could be.
In her early work as an essayist and later as a New York Times best-selling novelist and now, Cleage tells the stories of black women — how they deal with class, empowerment, health crises, the changing political climate. They are her stories, issues that have affected either her or those she has known. It tracks, then, that as she enters this stage of her career, aging is a theme. Her 2018 play, “Pointing at the Moon,” reprised a character she created 30 years ago for another drama called “Hospice.” Instead of picking up where she left the character, pregnant and 30 years old, Cleage reintroduced her in “Pointing at the Moon” as a 60-year-old woman reflecting on her life choices.
“The things I’m writing about now are not the same things I was writing about when I was 30, because I wasn’t thinking about mortality,” Cleage said. “I was thinking about falling in love and having babies and being a fabulous feminist woman. Now what I’m thinking about is very different because I’ve lived longer.”
And yet, “Angry, Raucous,” is more “inspired by,” than “true story.” It centers on Anna, a radical, feminist actress in her mid-60s, who, for nearly 35 years, has been living in Amsterdam, estranged from the U.S. theater community since she performed “Naked Wilson,” a piece critical of African-American playwright August Wilson. While standing naked, center stage, at a black theater festival, Anna rendered monologues by male characters from Wilson’s classic plays. The show was a commentary on the centrality of black men in Wilson’s work, while female characters stood in the margins.
Afterward, Anna couldn’t get work and had to go abroad. “Angry, Raucous” is set in the present, when Anna and her manager are invited to Atlanta for a commemorative performance of her vintage piece.
Anna is ready for the challenge: She has been working out, studying her lines. But as the performance nears, Anna meets Pete, an actress too young to know who Anna is, but old enough to see “Naked Wilson,” as an opportunity.
The baby boomer and millennial are suspicious and dismissive of each other. The plot is not quite “All About Eve,” the classic Bette Davis film about a veteran actress and the calculating young newcomer who wants to take her place. Yet, Cleage lays bare the fear a woman experiences as the person staring back at her in the mirror looks less like what’s in her mind’s eye. That the person in the mirror still has the passion and hunger of her younger self only makes the physical changes more difficult to bear.
“The thing I think is so hard is not only does it seem to come overnight — like all of us were 35 and then we’re 60, which, of course, is not true; you get there every day — but that fear (is there) because you realize that there are fewer years in front of you then there are behind you,” Cleage said.
Novelist Tayari Jones met Cleage, the woman who would become her mentor, when she was a student in the playwright’s class at Spelman College. Fast forward 30 years and now Jones is a New York Times best-selling author herself. Her latest novel, “An American Marriage,” was an Oprah Book Club pick last year and has been optioned for film adaptation. She’s on talk shows, book tour and has a huge Twitter following.
Cleage’s novel, “What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day,” was an Oprah Book Club pick exactly 20 years before Jones’. Her play, “Hospice” had an award-winning off-Broadway run. And among the ever-influential circuit of African-American women’s book clubs, Cleage has been a favorite for decades.
Jones, 48, said she considers her former instructor as much a friend as an adviser. The women have remained close for years. When they are together, the affection and admiration between them is apparent.
So, about that torch.
“The way that we do it (is) that we each respect the other’s experience,” Jones wrote in an email interview. “… But for us, it’s like she extended her torch so I could light mine. We’re both out here glowing! She has always generously shared the wisdom of her experiences and, in return, I help her navigate the changing world of writing and publishing — and the internet! Pearl has institutional memory — she is a witness to, and a participant in, the history of Atlanta and the history of this country. But I also value her day-to-day experiences. I want to talk to her about whatever happened to her just yesterday!”
Intergenerational friendships can be tricky. Things can go along fine, then one party says something that strikes the other as naive or antiquated. Given the right set of circumstances, admiration can morph into pity. Cleage said such friendships abide only if each party puts in the work to respect the other’s experiences and choices, which is not always easy. Especially when it comes to music.
She listened to rapper Cardi B around the time she was working on “Angry, Raucous,” because she wanted to understand the world of the play’s youngest character, Pete. Cardi’s lyrics were raw in a way Smokey Robinson’s never were. The 26-year- old rapper’s music wasn’t for Cleage, but she wasn’t about to dismiss the the Grammy-award-winning artist either.
“I am as convinced as I’ve ever been convinced of anything that these young women are building on what we gave them because we became feminist women. We became free women. We interrogated all those old ideas about women and what we could do and what we could not do,” Cleage said.
Things continue to change. Of the top 10 most-produced plays of the 2018-2019 season nationally, two are by African American women playwrights, Lynne Nottage and Dominique Morisseau, according to American Theatre magazine. And of the top 20 most-produced playwrights during the same period, three are black women, including Nottage, Morisseau and Christina Ham. Of the three, Nottage is the only one over 50.
“While we have worked with mature female writers of color in the past, I wouldn’t say it happens frequently, and I would say that is sadly atypical to do so in our field,” said Alliance Artistic Director Susan V. Booth.
But the ranks of young, black women playwrights penning important scripts are swelling, albeit slowly; Ham, Morisseau and actress Danai Gurira among them. As the veteran, Cleage views them as reinforcements rather than challengers. Her 40-year career has been prolific and she sees no reason why that should change. She knows she has earned the stories she’s telling, day by day, year by year.
“You have to be the best 60, you have to be the best 65, and you have to be the best 70, but you got to be in that moment,” Cleage said. “You can’t be trying to go backwards. Go forward. You got to make peace with this moment.”
To that, those coming up behind her might say, “Yes, Ma’am.”
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