Pearl Cleage revisits the reign of Maynard Jackson in ‘What I Learned in Paris’

For a speech to really set the pond on fire, the writer has to get inside the head of the speech maker so deeply, so thoroughly that she can channel the speaker’s voice and thoughts at will.

She must construct sentences that melt like butter, lilt like music or prickle like guilt. And, in some cases, she has got to make the speaker sound better than, perhaps, he or she actually is.

That was Pearl Cleage’s job in the mid-1970s as speechwriter and press secretary for Atlanta’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson. She was young both in marriage and motherhood, a woman with a drama degree who had chosen to put it aside for a chance to serve in the white-hot light of the city’s political stage. Less than nine years after the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 had been passed, the largest city in the Southeast had elected the region’s first black mayor. The nation was watching.

For a while, the historic nature of the moment seemed enough to fuel, if not satisfy, the natural writer’s urge in Cleage. That is until she began to write poetry after work as a way to relax, and noticed something odd. When she read her poems aloud, line for line, she heard not her voice, but Jackson’s.

“I said to myself, ‘This is not good,’ ” Cleage said recently. “All of us in the administration were conscious of the fact that history was moving really fast and we were so excited and lucky to be a part of it. But the trade-off was that you had to give everything.”

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After two and a half years of service, Cleage set out to reclaim her voice. Almost 40 years have passed, and her bestselling novels and a few well received plays prove that it is her voice now that is always top of mind.

Yet those early years in the first Jackson administration were not forgotten. They are the backdrop for her latest play, “What I Learned in Paris,” the Alliance Theatre’s season opener .

In recent years, Cleage — whose plays, fiction and nonfiction usually deal with issues of citizenship, class, race and feminism — has delved into the romantic comedy genre. Her last play for the Alliance, “The Nacirema Society,” (produced in 2010) was a tale of high society secrets and lies during the Montgomery Bus Boycott . “What I Learned in Paris,” continues in that comedic direction, though it’s more about what Cleage learned in Atlanta during those early days of the Jackson administration, and about the emotional and intellectual growing pains the city wrestled with after his election. As with most of Cleage’s work, Atlanta neighborhoods and landmarks figure prominently in the play. There are plenty of references to the legendary Paschal’s restaurant, where black Atlanta’s political and business elite met, and to the socialites in the mansions on Habersham Road in Buckhead. And there are, of course, plenty of references to Cleage’s former boss, who died in 2003.

Yet Cleage insists none of the characters are stand-ins for real people, though the lead character, Evie, seems to bear a strong attitudinal resemblance to the 63-year-old author.

“Evie is my love, because she gets to say everything I wish I had known in 1973,” Cleage said. “When I look at the actors in rehearsal I say, ‘If I had known back then all that Evie knows, it would have been much easier navigating all of that stuff.’ ”

A new theater position

The past 18 months have been full for Cleage. Susan Booth, who directs “What I Learned in Paris” and is Alliance artistic director, tapped Cleage for the theater’s first “artist in dialogue” residency. In that time, Cleage finished this latest play, led the “Collision Project,” the theater’s long-standing summer workshop for young drama students, and has been loosely charged with ramping up the theater’s outreach to a broader audience.

Some might read “broader,” as “black.” And it’s true that while the playwright’s audience spans races, it’s also true that Cleage’s loyal, core fans are African-American women, many of whom have made her novels staples of their book clubs. In fact, for this play — as well as “The Nacirema Society,” which Booth also directed — the script was sent to some of those book clubs in advance of the premiere. But Booth pushed back at any suggestion that the season’s lineup can be easily categorized.

“There is always a specific catalyst Pearl is drawn to, and this time it’s the politics of the 1970s in Atlanta,” Booth said. “It’s also a play about gender. So her plays are always about something enormous and human. If someone thinks this is a façade and nothing more, I can’t argue that down, nor should I. I would just say, look to the architecture of the play rather than the paint on its walls.”

In Booth’s eyes, Cleage is not unlike the Evie character, the confident, accomplished woman who serves as a bridge between worlds but who also believes in challenging the ideology of those worlds if she finds them unjust.

This is where Cleage can write with authority.

Long before she moved from Washington, D.C., to Atlanta in 1969 to attend Spelman, Cleage was at the center of the black empowerment movement. Her father was Albert Cleage, the theologian and nationalist who, during the 1950s and 1960s, preached a message of black self-sufficiency and empowerment. Their home became a stop for African-Americans who were pushing artistic boundaries, such as actress Ruby Dee, and others pushing political boundaries, such as Malcolm X.

“From her youngest years, she was meeting some of the most interesting people in the country and some of the most important figures in African-American culture, and in her later years her peers and colleagues are people like Jackson and Oprah,” said Randall Burkett, the curator of African American Collections at Emory University’s Manuscript, Archive and Rare Book Library.

A subject of study herself

Last month the library announced its acquisition of Cleage’s papers, from her journals and letters to drafts of her plays and novels. They span her early days at Howard University in Washington — where she studied playwriting under the noted writer and Harlem Renaissance descendant Owen Dodson — to the present. Burkett has gone through much of the trove and said that in it a reader can see Cleage’s evolution from a philosophy of black nationalism to something more encompassing.

“She’s not abandoning her father’s passion or commitment, but she’s moved forward because the country has changed,” Burkett said. “But here’s the thing; she’s not just following the change. As an intellectual and feminist, she’s part of leading the change.”

That is a theme Cleage draws out in “What I Learned in Paris” — the need for change and why truthfulness, especially with oneself, is essential.

“I call her Citizen Cleage, because I have watched her find the common denominator between people who didn’t even know they had anything in common,” Booth said. “And Pearl is profoundly generous in talking about, ‘Here’s who I was. Here’s who I am. Here’s who I want to be.’ ”

But it’s who Atlantans were then, near the twilight of the civil rights movement and at the dawn of integration, that’s played out in this new work. For native Atlantans such as Susan Ross, who also worked in the Jackson administration and who has worked in city government since, it’s a slice of history ripe for portrayal.

“You know, black people from Mississippi to Maryland were calling Maynard their mayor because he was the first in the Southeast,” Ross said. “And at that time everybody black who went into a new industry was a ‘first’ because before then, there had been none. We are the first ones who came up under that civil rights generation, and Pearl was one of us.”

And in this recollection of that era, the voice in Cleage’s head and on the stage is entirely hers.

“It is the absolute, pure pleasure of saying, ‘This is exactly what I was trying to say,’ ” she said.

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