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Citywide salute to playwright Pearl Cleage

Family heads. Parade customs. Love. Family secrets. Personal ambition and legacy. Playwright Pearl Cleage’s 2010 play “The Nacirema Society” (American spelling backwards) has it all. Set in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1964, audiences are introduced to the Dunbar, Green, and Jackson families as they prepare to take part in the civil rights movement in their own ways, while also preparing for a landmark event for an elite Black social organization. .

Game now at the Goodman Theater, is led by new artistic director Susan Booth. Booth previously directed Atlanta Alliance Theatre, which collaborated on the play’s premiere at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival.

“The first performance of ‘Nacirema’ was in Montgomery, Alabama; This was the first time Susan Booth and I worked together. “She directed this,” Cleage recalls. “This is a romantic comedy. This happened in the middle of the civil rights movement, but people were still falling in love. People were still arguing with their grandmothers. I remember watching viewers in Montgomery, Alabama relax into this story. And at the end of the game, they walked out laughing together, talking about the game to people they didn’t know before they got there. It was a wonderful moment for Susan and me to see what our work had led to. If you do it right, people come in not really knowing what they’re going to get, but if you do it in a way that appeals to their humanity, they leave greater than they were, they leave more connected than before. So I always hope that people can find something in the theater that will make them see themselves.”

“Nacirema Community” is the centerpiece of a month-long festival that centers on Cleage and his decades-long work with written texts. The festival also includes the works of artists. Remy Bumppo Theater CompanyBlack Ensemble Theatre, Congo Square Theatre, Definition Theatre, eta Creative Arts Foundation and Afrikaans Centered Theater Ma’at Production Association.

“One of the things I knew for sure when I found out I was coming here was that there would be a Pearl Cleage play in the first season I scheduled,” Booth said. “One of the greatest gifts I received from Atlanta was her work, her friendship, and her colleagues. I watched his plays one after another, turning on the audience in a truly remarkable way. “I came here and said as much.”

Cleage describes the festival, a first for him, as “a wonderful surprise and a real gift.”

“I’m very lucky because I’ve been able to work in theater my entire adult life,” Cleage said. “I always wanted to be a working writer, and I am a working writer. “I made theaters interested in my work and audiences responded to my work.”

His work includes glimpses into real life, its nuances, and the joy in the Black American experience. His play, “Blues for Alabama Skies,” is about people at the intersection of the Harlem Renaissance and the Great Depression. “Furious, Loud and Shamelessly Spectacular” focuses on feminism and who has the right to tell our stories. “Mad at Miles” looks at women, empowerment and domestic violence. The list goes on.

Booth said “Mad at Miles” was one of Cleage’s first works he read. “Absolutely impressive. This is a monologue. Pearl wrote it while struggling with the fact that she had learned that Miles Davis was abusive in his relationship with Cicely Tyson and the fact that she loved the man’s music and art, but was the complete opposite in love. with someone who is in a relationship with someone important to them. This piece is very clever and unfortunately very timeless.”

“Nacirema Community” director Lili-Anne Brown calls Cleage a “literary titan.”

“I hear Pearl did for black women what August Wilson did for black men,” Brown said. “That’s how I feel. Their work is timeless and enduring, as opposed to current and topical. I think right now people tend to think of Black work as current and topical because Black playwrights haven’t been added to the American theater canon. Court Theatre… they’re now exploring what it means to be a classic? What are the classics?” “Could there be new ‘classics’? I think that’s a fair conversation because to me, the Pearl Cleage games feel like classics.”

Malkia Stampley, Goodman’s artistic producer, calls Cleage a national treasure. So much so that he hopes this Cleage festival will spark other similar festivals across the country.

Pearl Cleage will perform the Martin Luther King Jr. ceremony in Atlanta on April 27, 2023.  He speaks at the dedication ceremony of the Coretta Scott King Peace and Meditation Garden and Memorial at the Central National Historic Site.

“Her work focuses on women of color, but it is still for everyone,” Stampley said. “I would argue that her catalog of work provides more opportunities for black women in theater than any other playwright. And he’s not done yet. We have an opportunity to see what else will come out of this next, from her talent, from her activism, from her feminism, from her love for Black people. I’m excited for Chicago to have this opportunity.

Stampley’s biggest reward at the festival: Being able to work simultaneously with many of Chicago’s Black-led and missionary theaters. “This unity, this collaboration… is nothing but love, and that’s the secret sauce to all of this, the collaborative efforts and love that we all have for each other, for Black theaters in Chicago, and for Black artists,” he said. .

Taking a look at his body of work, which includes dozens of plays, novels, poems and essays, Booth hopes the Cleage festival in Chicago is just the beginning. “I believe he is one of the great American writers who has not received the national attention he deserves,” Booth said.

“One of the great things I think about theater is that it’s still a place where you get together with people you probably don’t know, and you trust what’s going to happen there enough to let people invite you into a room. Turn off the lights with a group of strangers and tell you a story, Cleage said. “When you think about it, it’s a pretty risky thing to do. But we all gravitate towards the story, people have always done that. That’s what theater can do. When we do it right, people come out differently than they went in. If we come to the theater, we’ll get to know each other.”

Pearl Cleage Festival will continue until October 15. Visit goodmantheatre.org/event/pearl-cleage-fest/ For more information about productions and events.

drockett@chicagotribune.com

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