Pearl Cleage: A Conversation
For the much-lauded playwright, the best social media is theater

By Lee Valentine Smith

The prolific works of Pearl Cleage, whether fiction and non-fiction, features finely developed characters, intuitive dialogue and a true conversation with the audience or reader. The often-lauded writer's novel What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day was a 1998 Oprah Book Club selection and her fans include actors, artists and activists around the world. Known for her feminist views, and outspoken warts and all exposes of her life and her ever evolving stable of characters.

This month, the Playwright in Residence at the Alliance Theatre is overseeing the production of two one-act plays for the Alliance on the Road series. "Hospice" and "Pointing At The Moon" span 30 years of experience and conversation. INsite spoke with her just before a recent rehearsal of the production.

What in your opinion, is the one driving force behind a good play?

There are many emotions that drive good works of art. I certainly think rage can do it, love can do it. There are many passions that an artist can tap into to push a story forward. I'm always looking for the more positive energy to tap into but sometimes rage is justified, too.

Your best work personifies the word "real," and it's often the direct antithesis to today's fluffy, social media driven world.

People can retreat inward but there's no real conversation there. It seems people are doing everything onscreen. We're talking to each other through machines rather than seeing each other face to face and having a conversation. I'm really encouraging people to not be so dependent on technology and look each other eye to eye. Go find somebody to actually talk to and see how it goes.

Conversation is key.

Exactly, people will say things online that they'd never say in person. They're emboldened by the anonymity. Being with people makes you behave in a much more civilized manner. It's important to put the phones down and have a discussion. It doesn't have to be political, just go out and dance, have a drink. Sing something with your neighbors, be out, connect.

A great place for a conversation is the theater. Not during the performance, of course, but before and especially after.

That's what I love about theater. It brings together a roomful of strangers to hear a story from the stage. And that's an amazing opportunity for a playwright. You can influence a whole room full of people to think about the same thing at the same time, together. If you do it right, in the end, they turn to each other and realize that they have been part of a conversation that includes whoever is sitting next to them.

Theater is participatory.

Right, if you write fiction people read it by themselves, with a play, you write it by yourself and then you go into rehearsal which is one group and then you invite the audience in which is another group. That makes it a real performance and not just another rehearsal. You've invited your neighbors in for a conversation.

And their reaction makes it art.

I agree. When you see a piece of something, a play, a piece of music, any art, you see something that will resonate for you. The best thing people ever say to me as a writer is, that's exactly what I felt about that, that's exactly what I thought about that. But they may not be writers, so when they can relate to something I've written, then I know I did it right.

Your work always has a journalist feel to it, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, but it's always an account of realistic, relatable happenings. Social media has taken the place of the traditional journal for so many people.

And it's just so not for me, I try to be very active, because my friends say, 'Oh you need to be on Facebook, on Twitter or whatever,' and I try to not be one of those people who become an old curmudgeon. But it's the thing about expressing yourself so fast is what I don't like about it. The issue happens and you say something, that kind of mindset works against what I like to do, which is to actually sit for a minute and think about it. What do you think about this, how do you feel about this? What are you trying to communicate to other people? So Facebook just seems like a big time-eater to me. It's too fast. The writing isn't what you can focus on, it's what did you say that we can fuss about you about?

And Twitter seems to be the direct opposite of real communication.

It seems absurd to me. I can't say anything in 140 characters or whatever the word limit is. What annoys me most is that if you go over the character limit, it shows in red that you need to stop. I hate that! This is a machine trying to tell me how long a sentence should be?

It's so temporary. You can write something great.

And then it's gone. I don't want that, I want something people can think about and go back and look at it again and then talk to other people about it.

Also, a lot of your best work digs deep into your own experience. That must be alternately cleansing and scary.

Well I've been doing it for so long. You know, I did first-person columns for a long time. But what I realized was the things that might make reluctant to share them are what make people really relate to them. People are always worried about the same things. There will always be those connections where you think you are the only one who has this worry, this concern, this weakness. If you as a writer can write about it honestly, what it does is relieve other people. 'I'm so glad I'm not the only one who feels this way.' If you can do that, it takes away all the fear of anything. When I decided to publish parts of my journals, I had to ask myself, are you really prepared to do this? Sins and all. The thing is, you can't make up a new sin. Everything you obsess about and worry about has been done for a million years as long as there've been people on the earth.

That continues the conversation and your current production is a conversation between generations. Two very different but connected one-act plays.

The connection between them, in the first play Hospice which is 30 years old, it's between a mother and a daughter and the daughter is 30 years old. Then in Pointing At The Moon, which is brand new, we catch up with that same daughter, but 30 years later. So now she's 60.

That's an incredible span of time.

Yeah but I've always liked the characters in Hospice. The mother in Hospice dies but for the daughter, I found myself asking, 'What would she be like at this point in time?' So I thought, how would she have come through those 30 years, what would she be like now. So it was really fun to just revisit someone and keep the character true to what I wrote when she was 30 and to look at what that character would have developed into.

That's a great challenge to you as a writer to revisit and relive what you wrote three decades ago.

It is. You don't want to dishonor what you wrote before and change it. When I thought about this, I read the older play a number of times to make sure there was something there I wanted to pursue. I was still fascinated with the character. She didn't get to talk much, because her mother was very talkative. So in this one she gets to have much more time to be the central focus of the piece.

How much of this is from your own experience?

Well, I wrote the first one when my own mother had passed away. Then I was trying to think about mothers and daughters and how we want our mothers to tell us the secrets of being a woman. For this one, she's reacting much more to what's going on around her in the world today. So it still holds up for me. The women in the cast are wonderful and the director is also great, so it's like going into rehearsal with friends, so that's a treat for me.

Are you hands on during rehearsals?

For a new piece, if I'm in town, I always like to be there to be a part of it to make sure it is what I thought it was. Then I can do any editing that needs to happen. I'm trying to give the most complete script I possibly can, so then if there's changes, it'll be minimal. What I'm always excited by is what they do with what I've written. It's my belief that a person's play or any piece of writing needs to be one person's writing from page one until the end. The beauty of a great play is that it's one person's vision. I love Tennessee Williams and I love Ibsen and with them, it's like, it's my play, it's my vision and if you don't like it, that's fine, but it's not 20 people trying to tell a story.

Hospice and Pointing at the Moon runs March 23 - April 15 at the Fulton County Southwest Arts Center. For more information, please visit



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