Pearl Cleage’s new play is a comical ode to female artists—and activists—young or old

Angry, Raucous and Shamelessly Gorgeous runs March 20 to April 14 at the Alliance Theatre

Pearl Cleage

Photograph by Stephanie Eley

Carving a space for fully realized female characters in the theater canon is an uphill battle. According to the Theater Communications Group, only 20 percent of plays performed on American stages are written by women. Also, many productions depict women as long-suffering wives, mothers, or widows who live in agony for the love of a man.

Changing this perception and giving women the opportunity to tell their own stories is what connects two generations of artists in Pearl Cleage’s new play, Angry, Raucous and Shamelessly Gorgeous, running March 20 to April 14 at Alliance Theatre. However, these two groups have conflicting ideas of how to change the narrative—and Cleage has fun with them (and the audience) while they try to figure it out.

The fictional story, Cleage’s 10th work for Alliance, centers on Anne and Betty, two exiled artist-activists who left the United States for Amsterdam in the late ’70s after staging a naked protest performance of monologues from August Wilson’s plays. In 2018, they have been invited to perform at an arts festival, marking the first time they have set foot on American soil in three decades. Anne and Betty encounter a changed political landscape and learn that finding common ground with two younger artists who admire them is harder than anticipated. Comical conversations unfold between the younger and older artists about sustaining female friendships, aging in art, and generational differences in feminist ideology.

“Many older people find it very difficult to have conversations across generational lines because many young people don’t know the history,” Cleage says. “Older people get caught up in correcting and judging the person as opposed to starting at square one and asking what they believe in common. They have to arrive at that point in the play—to be able to see each other as women without judging what you bring on top of that.”

Cleage, resident playwright at the Alliance, says the play’s title—a reference to a phrase a New York Times critic used in a fine-art review years ago—captured the evocative and provocative power of art.

The Alliance’s artistic director, Susan Booth, will direct the show and says Cleage’s plays are good for the head and the heart. “She writes characters that jump off the page,” Booth says. “And because she creates such rich personalities, actresses can’t wait to work with her, and that just makes the characters deeper and deeper.”

Cleage hopes Angry, Raucous and Shamelessly Gorgeous, commissioned by the Alliance for its 50th anniversary, will ignite a passion for civic engagement but says the play really aims to amuse. “It’s always funny to look back at your serious 30-year-old self from the vantage point of 30 years later and say, ‘Now, what was I so mad about?’ and try to remember what it was like to feel that angry,” she says. “It’s a good story with likeable characters that are moving through a moment in their lives that a lot of people will be able to understand.”

This article appears in our March 2019 issue.