"Only the BLACK WOMAN can say, ‘when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me. '
— Anna Julia Cooper, “Womanhood: A Vital Element in the Regeneration and Progress of a Race”
I could have just as easily been zipping down Mt. Gilead Road, where we lived when Maynard Jackson arrived at what was probably my 7th birthday party, a few months after he became Atlanta’s first Black Mayor.
I could have just as easily been zipping past Clearbrooke Drive, the street you’d have turned on to get to where he and his family once lived.
I could have just as easily been passing by playwright and novelist Pearl Cleage’s house where she still lives in Southwest Atlanta.
I could have passed West End, where in my early 20s wearing an artistic outfit donned with a beret, I ran into Pearl who said “Oh! You look just like a Parisian.” (I didn't know what I Parisian was).
Instead, last week I was zipping down I-75/85N with my college daughter at the wheel. We were headed to the World Premiere of Pearl’s new play, What I Learned In Paris, when my phone rang. I didn't want to miss this particular caller yet again. I answered and let him know where I was going and as the convo came to a close he said I’d have to tell him what I thought of the play. That is, if I’d be able to give him my objective opinion after I saw it.
As I watched the play, I thought about the notion of objectivity and I have been thinking about that notion ever since. I would like to think that I could assume an objective stance to discuss it. Pearl is one of a strong group of women who helped me to become a critical thinker. So if there was something I thought needed saying, even if not the most flattering, I’d speak my truth.
But I should have told the gentlemen caller right then and there that when and where I enter, all of me enters too. And that this particular playwright has not only shaped my creative work; she has been a central figure in shaping who I am as a Black woman.
Pearl’s play opens in 1973. Maynard Jackson has just become Atlanta’s first African American Mayor. Set against a time of major social change, a group of key players in his mayoral campaign examine the complexities of their personal happiness. The playbill nailed its description of the play, saying “Portraying a crowning achievement of the civil rights movement and 1970s feminist ideas of the personal being political, Cleage elegantly juxtaposes two great 20th- century ideas about equality into a 21st century theatrical experience.”
What better person to write this story than 63-year old Pearl, who in her 20’s wrote speeches during Maynard’s campaign and after his win, became his Press Secretary?
Sure, I could tell you that the actors were well chosen.
That when actor Crystal Fox (“In the Heat of the Night”) made her grand entrance as “Evie” the audience applauded.
I could tell you about the set design, the costumes, the music.
I could tell you that Susan Booth directed it.
I could tell you how the racially integrated audience made me think about how not that long ago, racially mixed audiences were against the law in our fair city.
For the record, I think the play was very well-done. If it begged anything, it was to see the likeness of Maynard Jackson on stage.
But outside of saying that, I’ll kindly leave such details to another writer. A writer who was not one of Pearl’s Creative Writing students in college. One who never read each issue of Catalyst, the literary magazine Pearl edited. It would have to be a writer who didn’t go to Just Us Theatre, the speakeasy Pearl and her and husband Zaron Burnett put on for a decade. Such a writer would have to be one who knew little of “Stop Making Sense,” The Atlanta Tribune column Pearl used to write.
She needn’t have heard Pearl read her essay, “Before the Men Came.” The poor soul could not have known about that famous photo that now hangs in Atlanta University Center library. That historical photo of Toni Cade Bambara, Mari Eans, Johnetta B. Cole, Sonia Sanchez, Pinkie Gordon Lane, and Pearl Cleage.
The most objective writer could not have read Pearl’s books, nor remembered the many years when the only color Pearl wore was black. It would have to be a writer, who had not as a scholar, interviewed Pearl and researched how as a Cultural Worker, she uses her creative work to address issues of race and sex. And certainly, the writer could not have been present to hear Pearl read her essay “Mad at Miles.” Such a writer would have to have no appreciation or knowledge of what a “mantone” is. And she’d have to one who could not be swayed by recognizing the word “love” in accordance with the word “madly in this new play because the objective writer would not know that Pearl likes to sign her letters and postcards, “Love you madly.”
Having now stated my subjective disclaimer, while each of Pearl’s works is different, when I tell you that “What I Learned In Paris” can just as easily be thought of as “What I Learned from Pearl,” I know what I am talking about.
I wasn’t going to jump up and throw my bra onto the stage like feminists from another era. But in spirit I was standing up baring a breast, affirming like Sojourner Truth, “Arn't I a Woman?” The reason is that the play embodies the particular way Pearl issues her lessons. I like those words, like “Boredom is counterrevolutionary” that she put into the mouths of her characters. I like love stories and I like the human themes everybody can relate to.
Whether you read, watch, or listen to Pearl’s works, you are going to get some:
- Black Woman Central Character(s)
- Amazon Women
- Free Women
- Black Men
If you like any of those things and even if you don’t, go see the play because as the proverb goes, “You cannot move on to the second lesson until you have mastered the first.”