Skip to main content
Select Source:

Cleage, Pearl

Pearl Cleage

1948—

Author, playwright

Author and playwright Pearl Cleage works hard to capture the truth about African-American experiences, especially those of African-American women. Cleage built her reputation as a powerful feminist writer first with plays and essays before expanding her writing to novels. She achieved widespread acclaim for her play Flyin' West, which became the most produced new play in America in 1994. Yet Cleage's greatest recognition soon came from novels: a form she thought she'd "never write" as she remarked on her Web site. Her first novel What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day caught the attention of Oprah Winfrey and she picked it for her television book club in 1998, introducing Cleage to an enormous, international audience. The novel stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for nine weeks. Her higher public profile did not sway Cleage from her habits as a writer. Although publicity now took time away from her writing, writing remained her greatest joy and focus. She followed her commercially successful play and novel of the 1990s with a handful of novels and plays. Her decades of writing truthfully about life have created a body of work that catalogs several generations of the African-American experience and have earned Cleage respect and admiration from critics, theatergoers, and readers alike.

Developed Deep Understanding of Racial Issues

Cleage was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1948 and grew up on the west side of Detroit, Michigan. Her father, Albert Cleage, was a prominent minister who started as a Presbyterian, became a Congregationalist, and later founded his own denomination, the Pan African Orthodox Christian Church. Cleage's mother, Doris, was an elementary school teacher. The family also included Cleage's older sister, Kristin. Albert Cleage, who ran for governor of Michigan on the Freedom Now ticket in 1962, was a black nationalist who later changed his name to Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman. In her collection of essays Deals with the Devil: And Other Reasons to Riot, Cleage recalled, "By the time I was eight or nine, I understood clearly that slavery and racism had created a complex set of circumstances that impacted daily on my life as an African American…I also knew that as a person who had the advantage of growing up in a house where there were books, it was my responsibility once I achieved adulthood to work consciously to ‘uplift the race,’ or at least as much of it as I could, given limited resources, human frailty, and the awesome implacability of the group itself." Cleage's family did more than open her eyes to her duties to her community, it nurtured her talents. "I always wanted to write, and my family endorsed it," Cleage told Essence contributor Tara Roberts. "They taught me to take my writing seriously and then figure out what it could do for the people."

In high school, Cleage was academically gifted and socially popular. Upon graduation in 1966, she enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C. where she studied playwriting, had a pair of one-act plays produced, and became involved in an abusive relation- ship with a male student who, despite his violent behavior, she almost married. Though Cleage had been brought up with a strong sense of how race affected her life, her status as a woman was not something she contemplated until adulthood. In 1969, at age twenty, Cleage left Howard University to marry Michael Lomax, an Atlanta politician whom she had known for only a short time. "I wasn't a feminist when I got married," Cleage told Kris Worrell of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution.

Though her marriage to Lomax ended in 1979, Cleage has continued to reside in Atlanta. "I grew up in Atlanta. The fact that I was twenty years old when I arrived is beside the point. The city felt like home from the first minute I stepped off the airplane," Cleage wrote in Essence.

Devoted Herself to Writing

After finishing her undergraduate degree at Spelman College in 1971, Cleage worked at a variety of jobs in the media, including host of a local, black-oriented interview program. In the mid-1970s, she served as director of communications for the city of Atlanta and press secretary for Mayor Maynard Jackson. Her daughter, Deignan, was born during this period. Eventually, the stresses of a demanding job, motherhood, marriage, and her desire to devote more time to writing, which she viewed as her true calling, forced her to quit her job. "I have always known I was a writer, and I've always written—I don't know another way to live. I love it, but it's very hard work because you have to tell the truth," Cleage told Howard Pousner of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution.

In the 1980s, Cleage began to earn notoriety as a writer. Her play puppetplay, a surrealistic piece for two actresses and a marionette that explored how the need for love and for protection differ, was presented as a work-in-progress at the Atlanta New Play Project in 1981 and was produced the following year by Atlanta's Just US Theater Company. Other Cleage early plays—including Hospice, a drama about an estranged mother and daughter, Good News, a comedy about feuding lovers, and Essentials, which tells the tale of a woman attorney who becomes her town's first black elected official—were produced by various theater companies. Cleage also began writing and performing "performance pieces," contributing a regular column to the Atlanta Tribune, and writing freelance essays for national magazines.

In 1990, a selection of her essays was collected into the book Mad at Miles: A Blackwoman's Guide to Truth. The title is taken from an essay in which Cleage excoriates jazz trumpeter Miles Davis for his remorseless confessions of physically abusing black women. "Either we think it's a crime to hit us or we don't…And if we do, can we keep giving our money to Miles Davis so that he can buy a Malibu beach house and terrorize our sisters in it?" Cleage wrote.

At a Glance …

Born Pearl Michelle Cleage on December 7, 1948, in Springfield, MA; the daughter of Albert Buford Cleage (a minister) and Doris Graham Cleage (a teacher); married Michael Lucius Lomax (an elected official of Fulton County, GA), 1969 (divorced, 1979); married Zaron W. Burnett, Jr. (novelist), 1994; children: Deignan Njeri (from first marriage). Education: Attended Howard University, Washington, D.C., 1966-69; Spelman College, Atlanta, GA, BA, drama, 1971; Atlanta University, graduate study.

Career: Author of plays, essays, poetry, and fiction. Work as a playwright has been produced professionally since 1981; has been playwright in residence at Spelman College and at the Just US Theater Company, Atlanta. Contributor of essays to numerous publications including Essence, New York Times Book Review, Ms., Atlanta Magazine, Pride, Black World, and Afro-American Review. Columnist for the Atlanta Gazette, Atlanta Tribune, and Atlanta Constitution. Founding editor of Catalyst, a literary magazine. Other employment includes member of field collection staff, Martin Luther King, Jr. Archival Library, Atlanta, GA, 1969-1970; assistant director of Southern Education Program, Inc, Atlanta, GA, 1970-1971; writer and associate producer for WQXI, Atlanta, GA, 1972-1973; director of communications for the City of Atlanta, 1974-1976; hostess and interviewer for "Black Viewpoints," produced by Clark College, WETV, Atlanta; staff writer and interviewer for "Ebony Beat Journal," WQXI, Atlanta, 1972; executive producer for WXIA, Atlanta, 1972-1973; instructor at Emory University, 1978; instructor in creative writing at Spelman College, 1986-1991.

Awards: Five AUDELCO awards, for Hospice, 1983; NAACP Image Award, for Baby Brother's Blues, 2007.

Addresses: Web—www.pearlcleage.net.

The tone of Cleage's writings about gender and racial issues have led to charges that she resents both males and white people. Indeed, Cleage admits that she does not fully trust either of these groups. "It's not so much trying to make people frightened as to make them take responsibility. I think the skepticism is necessary. You have to have it. Otherwise you're adrift…And then you're defenseless. Then you're not prepared when you hit racism, then you're not prepared when you hit sexism," Cleage told Worrell.

In her 1991 collection of essays, Deals with the Devil: And Other Reasons to Riot, Cleage describes herself as an "African American Urban Nationalist." She explains that this designation is not a call for separatism but a recognition "that most of us are already separate, by choice or by circumstance. For those who desire integrated living, there are many communities where that is available. But for those of us who want to live and work in African-American environments, the choice should be presented as a blessing and a challenge, not a way to mark time until you can ‘get out of the ghetto,’ and as far away from other black folks as your line of credit can carry you. There is no reason to assume that the best house, the best school, the best store, the best college, the best food are always going to be outside our own communities. But that assumption is at the heart of the difference between African American Urban Integrationists and African American Urban Nationalists."

Wrote Powerful Plays

Cleage earned widespread praise for her dramatic account of the Exodus of 1879 in her 1992 play Flyin' West. In Flyin' West, Cleage focuses on four black women in the 1890s who escaped the racism of the south by homesteading in the Midwest. The idea for the play, which is set in the real-life black settlement of Nicodemus, Kansas, came to Cleage from the writings of Ida B. Wells, a turn of the century Memphis newspaper columnist who urged African Americans to go west in search of greater freedom. "On the surface it's about homesteaders in the American West, pioneers. But it's also a way to talk about contemporary issues, like race, gender, class, feminist issues. I'm a poet; I'm not a politician. My play is the form I use to get people to think about things that way," Cleage told Steve Monroe of American Visions. Among the theaters where Flyin' West has been staged is the Crossroads Theater Company in New Brunswick, New Jersey, with a cast headed by Olivia Cole. "Flyin' West couches an uncompromising black feminist credo in a conventionally entertaining domestic melodrama, laced with chipper comic exchanges. Its smooth blend of inspirational didacticism and homespun charm will be familiar to viewers of the women-oriented message movies shown on the Lifetime cable television network. But it has a sharper political bite, cheerfully arguing for black separatism and the right of abused wives to take vengeance into their own hands," wrote Ben Brantley of the New York Times in his review of the 1993 Crossroads production. Flyin' West became the most produced new play in America in 1994, and in 2007 it continued to be produced and touted as "a richly compelling portrait addressing issues of family, community, domestic violence and racial identity," according to Chicago Defender Earl Calloway before the show opened at the University of Chicago.

Cleage again turned to African-American history for the basis of the play Blues for an Alabama Sky, set in the waning days of the Harlem Renaissance in early 1930s. The play focuses on Angel Allen, a down-on-her-luck blues singer who, after breaking up with her white gangster boyfriend, contemplates marriage to a seemingly honest if lackluster black man from the south. Also on hand are Angel's neighbors, including a gay male clothes designer with dreams of living in Paris, and an earnest young woman trying to open a birth control clinic in Harlem. "You could say Cleage hits all the clichés in her story, but you could also say that she smacks them so hard their faces shine and they look fresh…It's to Cleage's credit that she refuses to resolve the troublesome issues of birth control, abortion, sexual freedom, duty to the self and duty to the community. The play is clumsy at times, but it's never glib," wrote Lloyd Rose of the Washington Post in a review of an Arena Stage, Washington, D.C. production of Blues for an Alabama Sky starring Phylicia Rashad in 1996.

In Bourbon at the Border, first staged at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta in 1997, Cleage deals with the aftermath of historical events. In the play a group of middle-aged characters cope with the memory of their experience as young activists in the 1960s when their attempts to register black voters in Mississippi met with violent resistance. The setting is an apartment overlooking the Ambassador Bridge that connects Detroit with Windsor, Ontario. "Out of all my plays Bourbon at the Border was the hardest for me to write, but I'd call it a love story in spite of itself. These characters are struggling to find a peaceful place to love each other," Cleage told Angela P. Moore of Upscale. It was important to Cleage that the characters in the play were depicted as regular working people, not legendary radicals or rarified intellectuals. "There's this feeling that everyone in the civil rights movement was either martyred and killed or they not only survived but went on to be elected mayor or go to Congress. It's a feeling that everybody involved was a great warrior," Cleage explained to Mark Binelli of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution.

Won Popular Attention with Novel

Cleage wrote her first novel when she came up with an idea for a story that "wouldn't fit into the structure a play requires," she noted on her Web site. The resulting book, What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, captivated readers with a story about Ava Johnson, a woman who struggles to cope with her newfound HIV-positive status and finds that love offers her the power to mount such a daunting obstacle. Emerge contributor Kiema Mayo found Cleage "clever in striking an emotional chord shared by many Black women, regardless of class or social station." Oprah Winfrey noticed Cleage's talent too and selected the debut novel for her book club in 1998. The publication spent nine weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.

An established writer, Cleage adjusted to her newfound fame well, and continued to produce notable work. The characters in What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day proved particularly compelling for Cleage, and she followed their stories through five more novels over the next ten years.

I Wish I Had a Red Dress, Cleage's second novel, offers the story of Ava Johnson's widowed sister, Joyce Mitchell, who runs the Sewing Circus and Community Truth Center in Idlewild, Michigan, and tries to help teenagers navigate the complexities of parenthood as they themselves grow into adults. Joyce's work with troubled teens contrasts with her own personal relationship. Library Journal reviewer Jennifer Baker appreciated the "humor and sparkling dialog," Cleage used to balance "the dark, abusive relationships of Joyce's clients with the delightfully healthy love between Joyce and Nate and the strength of women's friendships."

Continued to Inspire Readers

In Some Things I Thought I'd Never Do, Cleage offers her "usual strong social consciousness, delicious character development, and evocative portrayal of black neighborhoods," according to Booklist reviewer Vanessa Bush. The story of recovering drug-addict Regina Burns' struggle to create a sense of "home" after the loss of her fiancé and move to Atlanta. Another love story filled with personal struggle, the novel also offered larger political commentary about black communities in general.

Her purpose as a writer, Cleage shared with Essence, was to write "a blueprint that makes it easier for us to create better lives and communities for ourselves." And she continued to do just that in her fourth novel, Babylon Sisters. The "social drama portraying strong female characters in a vibrant African American urban community," as Library Journal's Jennifer Baker described it, centered around the tumultuous family relationships of Catherine Sanderson, as she tries to cope with her teenage daughter Phoebe trying to find out the identity of her biological father, a man who doesn't know she exists. Cleage told Essence contributor Douglas Danoff that in all her writing she tries to reward truth telling, and in doing so to inspire her readers. "At the end of my books I want my reader to think: Maybe I can tell the man I love the truth, and it won't make him run screaming out the door."

Following her characters through more intriguing relationship and societal struggles, Cleage published Baby Brother's Blues, another story set in Atlanta's West End community with previous characters Regina Burns, Blue Hamilton, and Aretha Hargrove. Cleage "brilliantly weaves the threads of her characters' intersecting lives into a story of family, friendship, and, of course, love," according to Seattle's The Skanner. Cleage planned publication of yet another novel, Seen It All and Done the Rest, in 2008, which promised to introduce new characters to her vibrant Atlanta neighborhood of previous stories.

As Cleage enjoyed successful publication of her novels, her writings continued to include poetry and plays. With her husband, she wrote We Speak Your Names, a book of poetry which Oprah Winfrey included in her Legend's Ball Weekend in 2005, honoring 25 African-American women. She also wrote such plays as A Song for Coretta, a piece about five women waiting to pay their respects to Coretta Scott King who is laying in state, and The Love Project, an exploration of love she wrote with her husband.

The community Cleage creates in her books, poetry, and plays is purposeful and permanent. "I will always write about Black people and our efforts to build a community where we can live safely," Cleage told Annette Gilliam of the Washington Informer. "I write about how Blacks can better our lives and communicate with each other. These will always be my themes, regardless of the forum."

Selected works

Books

What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, Avon, 1997.

I Wish I Had a Red Dress, Avon, 2001.

Some Things I Never Thought I'd Do, Ballantine/One World, 2003.

Babylon Sister, Ballantine/One World, 2005.

We Speak Your Names (poetry), Ballantine/One World, 2006.

Baby Brother's Blues, Ballantine/One World, 2006.

Seen It All and Done the Rest, Ballantine/One World, 2008.

Plays

puppetplay, 1981.

Hospice, 1983.

Chain, 1992.

Flyin' West, 1992.

Late Bus to Mecca, 1992.

Blues for an Alabama Sky, 1995.

Bourbon at the Border, 1997.

A Song for Coretta, 2007.

The Love Project, 2007.

Recordings

Recordings and Videotapes: A Nation of Poets (recording), 1990.

We Who Believe in Freedom: A Gathering Around the Urban Campfire (video), 1996.

Sources

Books

Peterson, Bernard L. Jr. Contemporary Black American Playwrights and Their Plays, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1988.

Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, Vol. 27, Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1989.

Contemporary Theatre, Film and Television, Vol.13, Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1995.

Notable Black American Women, Book II, Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1996.

Periodicals

American Theatre, December 1992, p. 59; March 1994, p. 58.

American Visions, October-November 1994, p. 31.

Atlanta Journal and Constitution, February 3, 1985, p. J10; May 18, 1986, p. J2; January 18, 1989, p. C3; October 13, 1993, p. E1; March 19, 1995, p. M4; May 11, 1997, p. L1.

Booklist, July 2003, p. 1844.

Chicago Defender, March 9-11, 2007, p. 14.

Emerge, November 1997, p. 98.

Essence, June 1996, p. 78; December 1997, p. 90; September 2003, p. 128; March 2005, p. 135.

Library Journal, May 15, 2001, p. 160; February 1, 2005, p. 66.

Los Angeles Times, August 30, 1993, p. E1.

New York Times, November 6, 1983, p. A84; October 6, 1993, p. C16; October 10, 1993, New Jersey weekly desk, p. 13; June 6, 1996, Connecticut weekly Desk, p. 16; June 9, 1996, p. 13.

Skanner, March 1, 2006, p. 6.

Upscale, September/October 1997, p. 62.

Washington Informer, February 4, 1998, p. 16.

Washington Post, July 29, 1993, p. C1; September 15, 1994, p. C1; September 13, 1996, p. F1.

On-line

Pearl Cleage,http://www.pearlcleage.net (October 19, 2007).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Cleage, Pearl." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 15 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Cleage, Pearl." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 15, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/cleage-pearl

"Cleage, Pearl." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved August 15, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/cleage-pearl

Cleage, Pearl 1934–

Pearl Cleage 1934

Playwright

At a Glance

Began Writing Career

African American Urban Nationalist

Integrated History into Playwrighting

Sources

Cleage was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1948 and grew up on the west side of Detroit. Her father, Albert Cleage, was a prominent minister who started as a Presbyterian, became a Congregationalist, then founded his own denomination, the Pan African Orthodox Christian Church. Cleages mother, Doris, was an elementary school teacher. The family also included Cleages older sister, Kristin. Albert Cleage, who ran for governor of Michigan on the Freedom Now ticket in 1962, was a black nationalist who later changed his name to Jaramogi Abebe Agyemen. In her collection of essays Deals with the Devil: And Other Reasons to Riot, Cleage recalled, By the time I was eight or nine, I understood clearly that slavery and racism had created a complex set of circumstances that impacted daily on my life as an African-American I also knew that as a person who had the advantage ofgrowing up in a house where there were books, it was my responsibility once I achieved adulthood to work consciously to uplift the race, or at least as much of it as I could, given limited resources, human frailty, and the awesome implacability of the group itself.

In high school, Cleage was academically gifted and socially popular. Upon graduation in 1966, she enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C. where she studied playwrighting, had a pair of one act plays produced, and became involved in an abusive relationship with a male student who, despite his violent behavior, she almost married. Though Cleage had been brought up with a strong sense of how race affected her life, her status as a woman was not something she contemplated until adulthood. In 1969, at age twenty, Cleage left Howard University to marry Michael Lomax, an Atlanta politician whom she had known for only a short time. I wasnt a feminist when I got married, Cleage told Kris Worrell of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. Though her marriage to Lomax ended in 1979, Cleage has continued to reside in Atlanta. I grew up in Atlanta. The fact that I was twenty years old when I arrived is beside the point. The city felt like home from the first minute I stepped off the airplane, Cleage wrote in Essence.

After finishing her undergraduate degree at Spelman College in 1971, Cleage worked at a variety of jobs in the media, including host of a local, black-oriented interview program. In the mid-1970s, she served as director of communications for the city of Atlanta and press secretary for Mayor Maynard Jackson. Her daughter, Deignan, was born during this period. Eventually, the stresses of a demanding job, motherhood, marriage, and her desire to devote more time to writing, which she viewed as her true calling, forced her to quit her job. I have always known I was a writer, and Ive always writtenI dont know another way to live. I love it, but its very hard work because you have to tell the truth, Cleage told Howard Pousner of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution.

At a Glance

Born Pearl Michelle Cleage on December 7, 1948, in Springfield, MA; the daughter of Albert Buford Cleage (a minister) and Doris Graham Cleage (a teacher); married Michael Lucius iomax, 1969 (divorced, 1979); married Zaron W. Burnett, Jr., c 1990; children: one daughter, Deignan Nferi (from first marriage). Education: Howard Univ, 1966-69; Spelman Coll, B.A., 1971; graduate study at Atlanta Univ.

Career: Author of plays, essays, poetry, and fiction, playwright, 1981-; Contributor of essays to numerous publications including Essence, NYT Book Review, Ms.; Columnist for the Atlanta Gazette, Atlanta Tribune, and Atlanta Constitution. Founding editor of Catalyst. Member of field collection staff, MLK Jr. Archival Library, 1969-70; asst dir, Southern Educ Prog Inc, 1970-71; writer, assoc producer, WQXI, Atlanta, 1972-73; dir of comm, City of Atlanta, 1974-76; hostess, interviewer for Black Viewpoints, produced by Clark College, WETV; staff writer, interviewer for Ebony Beat Journal, WQXI, Atlanta, 1972; exec producer for WXIA, Atlanta, 1972-73; instructor at Emory Univ, 1978; instructor, creative writing, Spelman Coll, 1986-91.

Selected plays: Hymn for the Rebels, Howard Univ., 1968; Duet for Three Voices, Howard Univ., 1969; The Sale, Spelman Coll., 1972; Good News, Just US Theater, Atlanta, 1984; Essentials, Just US Theater, Atlanta, 1985, Porch Songs, Phoenix Theater, Indianapolis, 1985; Banana Bread (tvplay), WPBA, Atlanta, 1985; Comeand Get These Memories, Billie Holiday Theater, Brooklyn, 1987; Flyin West, Alliance Theater Co., Atlanta, 1992; Chain, Womens Project and Productions and the New Federal Theater, Off-Broadway, NYC, 1992; Blues for an Alabama Sky, Alliance Theater Co., Atlanta, 1995; Bourbon at the Border, Alliance Theater Co., Atlanta, 1997.

Books: We Dont Need No Music (poetry), 1971; Dear Dark Faces (poetry), 1980; One for the Brothers (chap-book), 1983; Mad at Miles: A Blackwomans Guide to Truth (essays), 1990; The Brass Bed and Other Stories (fiction), 1991; Deals with the Devil: And Other Reasons to Riot (essays), 1991; Dreamers and Dealmakers: An Insiders Guide to the Other Atlanta Games (non-fiction), 1996; What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day (fiction), 1997.

Addresses: Home Atlanta, GA.

Began Writing Career

In the 1980s, Cleage began to earn notoriety as a writer. Her play puppetplay, a surrealistic piece for two actresses and a marionette, was presented as a work-in-progress at the Atlanta New Play Project in 1981 and was produced the following year by Atlantas Just US Theater Company. Other Cleage plays were given mountings by various theater companies, including Hospice, a drama about an estranged mother and daughter, Good News, a comedy about feuding lovers, and Essentials, which tells the tale of a woman attorney who becomes her towns first black elected official. Cleage also began writing and performing performance pieces, contributing a regular column to the Atlanta Tribune, and writing freelance essays for national magazines.

In 1990, a selection of her essays were collected into the book Mad at Miles: A Blackwomans Guide to Truth. The title is taken from an essay in which Cleage excoriates jazz trumpeter Miles Davis for his remorseless confessions of physically abusing black women. Either we think its a crime to hit us or we dont And if we do, can we keep giving our money to Miles Davis so that he can buy a Malibu beach house and terrorize our sisters in it?, Cleage wrote.

The tone of Cleages writings about gender and racial issues have led to charges that she resents both males and white people. Indeed, Cleage admits that she does not fully trust either of these groups. Its not so much trying to make people frightened as to make them take responsibility. I think the skepticism is necessary. You have to have it. Otherwise youre adrift And then youre defenseless. Then youre not prepared when you hit racism, then youre not prepared when you hit sexism, Cleage told Worrell.

African American Urban Nationalist

In her 1991 collection of essays, Deals with the Devil: And Other Reasons to Riot, Cleage describes herself as an African American Urban Nationalist. She explains that this designation is not a call for separatism but a recognition that most of us are already separate, by choice or by circumstance. For those who desire integrated living, there are many communities where that is available. But for those of us who want to live and work in African American environments, the choice should be presented as a blessing and a challenge, not a way to mark time until you can get out of the ghetto, and as far away from other black folks as your line of credit can carry you. There is no reason to assume that the best house, the best school, the best store, the best college, the best food are always going to be outside our own communities. But that assumption is at the heart of the difference between African American Urban Integrtionists and African American Urban Nationalists.

Integrated History into Playwrighting

In her play Flyin West, Cleage focuses on four black women in the 1890s who escaped the racism of the south by homesteading in the Midwest. The idea for the play, which is set in the real-life black settlement of Nicodemus, Kansas, came to Cleage from the writings of Ida B. Wells, a turn of the century Memphis newspaper columnist who urged African-Americans to go west in search of greater freedom. On the surface its about homesteaders in the American west, pioneers. But its also a way to talk about contemporary issues, like race, gender, class, feminist issues. Im a poet; Im not a politician. My play is the form I use to get people to think about things that way, Cleage told Steve Monroe of American Visions. Among the theaters where Flyin West has been staged is the Crossroads Theater Company in New Brunswick, New Jersey, with a cast headed by Olivia Cole. Flyin West couches an uncompromising black feminist credo in a conventionally entertaining domestic melodrama, laced with chipper comic exchanges. Its smooth blend of inspirational didacticism and homespun charm will be familiar to viewers of the women-oriented message movies shown on the Lifetime cable television network. But it has a sharper political bite, cheerfully arguing for black separatism and the right of abused wives to take vengeance into their own hands, wrote Ben Brantley of the New York Times in his review of the 1993 Crossroads production.

Cleage again turned to African American history for the basis of the play Blues for an Alabama Sky which is set in the waning days of the Harlem Renaissance in early 1930s. The play focuses on Angel Allen, a down-on-her-luck blues singer who, after breaking up with her white gangster boyfriend, contemplates marriage to a seemingly honest if lackluster black man from the south. Also on hand are Angels neighbors, including a gay male clothes designer with dreams of living in Paris, and an earnest young woman trying to open a birth control clinic in Harlem. You could say Cleage hits all the clichés in her story, but you could also say that she smacks them so hard their faces shine and they look fresh Its to Cleages credit that she refuses to resolve the troublesome issues of birth control, abortion, sexual freedom, duty to the self and duty to the community. The play is clumsy at times, but its never glib, wrote Lloyd Rose of the Washington Post in a review of an Arena Stage, Washington, D.C. production of Blues for an Alabama Sky starring Phylicia Rashad in 1996.

In Bourbon at the Border, first staged at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta in 1997, Cleage deals with the aftermath of historical events. In the play a group of middle aged characters cope with the memory of their experience as young activists in the 1960s when their attempts to register black voters in Mississippi met with violent resistance. The setting is an apartment overlooking the Ambassador Bridge which connects Detroit with Windsor, Ontario. Out of all my plays Bourbon at the Border was the hardest for me to write, but Id call it a love story in spite of itself. These characters are struggling to find a peaceful place to love each other, Cleage told Angela P. Moore of Upscale. It was important to Cleage that the characters in the play were depicted as regular working people, not legendary radicals or rarified intellectuals. Theres this feeling that everyone in the civil rights movement was either martyred and killed or they not only survived but went on to be elected mayor or go to Congress. Its a feeling that everybody involved was a great warrior, Cleage explained to Mark Binelli of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution.

As to the future, Cleage expects to continue what shes been doing for decades: thinking and writing about African American women, promoting action to improve their lives, and celebrating their strength and achievements. Cleage told Lynell George of the Los Angeles Times, Im less interested in what people call themselves than in what they do. How they live their lives. If they are working in neighborhoods, raising their children and struggling to build positive relationships with women and men, then I call that a feminist. If they call that a good strong black woman thats fine too.

Sources

Books

Peterson, Bernard L. Jr. Contemporary Black American Playwrights and Their Plays, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1988.

Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, Vol.27, Detroit, ML Gale

Research, 1989.

Contemporary Theatre, Film and Television, Vol.13, Detroit, ML Gale

Research, 1995.

Notable Black American Women, Book II, Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1996.

Periodicals

American Theatre, December 1992, p. 59; March 1994, p. 58.

American Visions, October-November 1994, p. 31.

Atlanta Journal and Constitution, February 3, 1985, p. J10; May 18, 1986, p. J2; January 18, 1989, p. C3; October 13, 1993, p. E1; March 19, 1995, p. M4; Mayll, 1997, p. L1.

Essence, June 1996, p. 78.

Los Angeles Times, August 30, 1993, p. E1.

New York Times, October 6, 1993, p. C16; October 10, 1993, New Jersey weekly desk, p. 13; June 6, 1996, Connecticut weekly Desk, p. 16.

Upscale, September/October 1997, p. 62.

Washington Post, July 29, 1993, p. C1; September 15, 1994, p. C1; September 13, 1996, p. F1.

Mary Kalfatovic

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Cleage, Pearl 1934–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 15 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Cleage, Pearl 1934–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 15, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/cleage-pearl-1934

"Cleage, Pearl 1934–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved August 15, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/cleage-pearl-1934