Q&A with Pearl Cleage

An interview with the author

This month the Alliance Theatre presents the world premiere of Atlanta playwright and author Pearl Cleage’s new romantic comedy What I Learned in Paris (9/5 to 9/30), which is actually about 1970s-era Atlanta. It promises to transport audiences back to a time when “mini skirts and bell-bottoms were on sale Downtown for $8.87.” The writer discusses why 1973 proved a transformative time for her and the city of Atlanta.

The members of Oprah’s Book Club might not know this, but you moved here in 1969, graduated from Spelman, and then landed a job as a campaign speechwriter and later press secretary for the city’s new mayor Maynard Jackson. How did that experience inform the writing of this new play? It was a pivotal time, and I wanted to capture that for this play. When Maynard became the first African American mayor of Atlanta, it was truly an exciting time to be here. We knew we had turned a corner. We felt exhilarated. But working at city hall was the hardest job I ever had in my life. Maynard was a hard-working perfectionist. We had a joke about Maynard calling us in the middle of the night and asking us, “Did I wake you?” We always lied and said, “Oh, no.” But we got up out of the bed and did whatever the mayor wanted us to do. It was exciting to be a part of the next phase of the city’s life.

You’re best known for your dramatic works tackling sometimes-taboo social issues. Is it a relief to write a comedy? I really love writing comedy. Writing romantic comedy is even nicer because you get to write about how insane we all act when we’re falling in love. When Maynard became mayor, he was thirty-five and I was twenty-five. Everyone we knew were newlyweds, falling in love, and having babies.

How did you transport yourself back to that time period? I’ve kept journals since I was eleven years old. I went back through those, and it helps to have a husband [novelist and poet Zaron W. Burnett Jr.] who can remember every song ever recorded, who sang it, and when it was released.

How do you work as a playwright? Is your work done when you turn in the script, or do you continue to collaborate with the director and the actors into the rehearsal process? I stay involved, especially when it’s a world premiere. Theater is about collaborating. When you write a novel, you write it in a room by yourself and then a reader buys the book and goes off alone to read it. I truly love the rehearsal process, those eight hours a day! I really love actors. What they bring to the process is magical. I’m always open to what they have to say. Often, as the writer of the piece, you can answer questions when they want to know “What is this woman thinking and feeling here?” or “Why does this man act this way?” I’m not one of those playwrights who says, “Show up, hit your marks, and don’t talk to me!” I always want to hear from the other artists involved, whether it’s the director, the lighting tech, or the actors.

Some of your female readers are so smitten with Blue Hamilton, the R&B–singing romantic hero in two of your novels, Baby Brother’s Blues and Some Things I Never Thought I’d Do, they’ve been known to complain, “Damn that Pearl Cleage for creating the perfect man who doesn’t exist in real life!” What advice do you have for the single ladies searching for Blue Hamilton in real life? [Laughing] It’s true! Women stop me on the street corner to ask, “Does Blue have any brothers? Is he real?!” I’ll say this: He’s not based on any one person, but he possesses many of the same traits I’ve stolen for him from my husband. He’s the kind of man you want to see in your relationship and working in your neighborhood. He possesses that combination of having the ability to love openly and someone who is very romantic. He’s able to share and recall his past lives too, just like Blue. I’ve taken some of that directly from his memories. To have readers react that way is a wonderful gift to give my husband.

There are countless jazz fans who haven’t been able to listen to Miles Davis the same way since reading your 1990 book, Mad at Miles: A Blackwoman’s Guide to Truth, where you detail Davis’s abusive relationships with women. Should I continue to feel guilty about wanting to listen to his work? No, you should not feel guilty. Miles is dead. We can just hope the next time he comes around his spirit and his personality will be as lovely as his music. And I will confess that I was never able to give up listening to Kind of Blue myself either!

I just acquired a mint condition vinyl copy of his 1961 live album Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall. Do I have Pearl Cleage’s permission to crack that bad boy open? [Laughs] Absolutely. Do you know that I got phone calls from people when he died [in 1991] asking, “Is it OK to listen to Miles again?” I had no idea the book would have that kind of impact, but I’m happy it got people to stop and think, especially if men took the time to read it. Women are not in these relationships alone, and we can’t evolve together unless the men are active participants as well. So yes, go home tonight, open a bottle of wine, put that on the turntable and enjoy!

Photograph by Albert Trotman

This is an extended version of the article that originally ran in our September 2012 issue.