This wasn't the first time I had been given the opportunity to ask noted author and playwright Pearl Cleage a few questions about her work and her perceptions of the writing industry itself. And yet, each time I have profited, intellectually, spiritually and professionally from our sharing of words and ideas.
Cleage is an Atlanta-based writer who hails from the Motor City. Her novel, What Looks Like Crazy On An Ordinary Day, became a New York Times Bestseller and was chosen as part of Oprah's Book Club.
Other recent works include Blues for An Alabama Sky, a full-length drama commissioned and premiered at The Alliance Theatre in 1995. In fact while Bourbon at the Border is making its Chicago premier, it was also produced at The Alliance Theatre in April of 1997.
And not one to rest on her laurels, Cleage has a new novel that will be released in July by Ballantine/One World entitled Some Things I Never Thought I'd Do.
On to The Play
Here is a brief synopsis of Bourbon at the Border: After months at a mental rehabilitation hospital, Charlie returns home to his wife, May. He gets a job through Tyrone, the boyfriend of Rosa, May's best friend. Everything seems to be going fine for both of the couples. But it becomes clear that all of Charlie's problems were not solved during his time away. He must still face the traumatic events in his and May's past during the civil-rights movement, events that continue to creep into the present.
Cleage takes on serious questions and themes in her play—some that are rarely addressed in an on-stage presentation. Will true love always save the soul? Are there some burdens that can only be purged by violence? These are just a few of the provocative themes that Cleage masterfully addresses in Bourbon at the Border.
Bourbon at the Border runs through March 2 at Victory Gardens Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., $22-$35, (773) 871-3000 or www.ticketweb.com .
A Chat with the Playwright
Kevin McNeir: What led you to write your newest play?
Pearl Cleage: Bourbon at the Border is the result of my thinking about what happens to activists when the demonstrations are over. What happens to people who have been so damaged fighting the good fight once the rest of us go back to our regular lives? I have been an activist most of my life and when I came to Atlanta, my first job was at the Martin Luther King Center for Social Change. It was 1969 and there were many movement people in the city. I knew many of them and counted them as friends.
As I listened to their stories of their work in such dangerous environments, working to secure the vote, to integrate the restaurants and buses, I thought about what they had given up to do the work that had to be done. Thinking about that took me to Charlie and May. I wanted to create characters whose love for each other was grounded in the movement, but was destroyed by the brutality of the opposition they encountered. I wanted to explore the theory that the male character exposes in LeRoi Jones' play, The Dutchman—that if Black people would murder some white people all of their mental anguish would be over. Charlie's murder of three random men is because he thinks that will even the score for the damage that was done to him and May by three white men in Mississippi. I hope that the play allows us to focus on the aftermath of the civil-rights movement and on the toll it took on ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. I also hope it raises questions of whether or not more violence can ever be the best answer to violence.
McNeir: I understand that Bourbon at the Border is set in Detroit, my hometown. Why this setting and does the place really matter in the context of the play?
Cleage: The play takes place in Detroit because of the border with Canada. You can stand in downtown Detroit (my hometown too) and look across the Detroit River into another country. This is important to the play because all Charlie would have to do is walk across a bridge, the Ambassador Bridge, that is part of the set for the play right outside his window, and he could leave America behind. May keeps begging him to go to Canada, but he carries so many terrible, unresolved feelings that even though Canada, which represents freedom from American racist madness, is within view, Charlie can't be free. The poignancy of freedom being so close, yet still so far away, is why Detroit is the only setting that works for the play.
McNeir: You are an award-winning novelist and a highly celebrated playwright. What's the difference in preparing pieces for both genres and how do you select your subject matter?
Cleage: The preparation for a play is similar to that of a novel because for me, my work in both genres starts with character. I believe that plot grows out of characters' lives, so I am always trying to make sure that the characters I create have real inner lives and specificity. Once I get the characters right, the questions involved with telling their story through drama or through fiction are all questions of craft. My subject matter always begins for me with a question that I have asked myself and not found a satisfactory answer for. With Bourbon at the Border, I was asking myself 'what is the appropriate response to racist violence?'
McNeir: What is it like coming from a family of Black leaders (the Cleage tradition)? What do you remember most about your childhood? Have you always known you wanted to become a writer?
Cleage: I was very fortunate to grow up in a house full of conscious Black people whose lives were shaped by their involvement with the freedom struggle. Some of my earliest memories are of going to church listening to my father preaching about the events of the day and the role that Christian people should play in shaping those events. My childhood was challenging and exciting. The thing I remember most is the level of commitment that my family had to the Movement and the discipline they had about doing the work that needed to be done. I have always known I was a writer. Even before I could read, I was telling stories to my sister. When she taught me to read and write when I was four years old, I started keeping little notebooks and writing my stories down. I'm still doing it today. I love writing and cannot imagine not doing it. I am always grateful when I finish a piece of work and excited about starting in on another. One of the things that I find most encouraging about my work is that I don't pretend there are not problems in our community as Black people, but I always put forward solutions and in the midst of it all, I try to remember that it's OK to tell a love story. Bourbon at the Border, in all its sadness, is a love story about two people whose love was destroyed by war. I am very optimistic about our ability to find answers to our problems if we will begin to define the right questions. I hope my work is part of that process.
McNeir: Is the price of freedom something that is never paid in full?
Cleage: I think the old civil-rights song said, 'freedom is a constant struggle.' But there's another song by Sweet Honey in the Rock that says, 'we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it's won.' In the case of Charlie and May, the price they paid was for the freedom of their people, but it didn't free them as individuals. It made them slaves to the horrors they had to go through in Mississippi. May thinks she needs to leave America. Charlie thought he needed to kill some people. Neither one finds the peace for which they are searching.
McNeir: What do you prefer writing most, plays or fiction?
Cleage: I enjoy writing fiction and plays. The biggest difference for me is that I miss the collaborative nature of theatre. Writing a novel is a solitary activity. You write it alone and the reader experiences it alone. Writing a play is solitary at first, but once it goes into rehearsal, it is a collaboration between the playwright, the director, the actors, the designers and the tech crews. I miss that collaboration in fiction. On the other hand, so few Americans go to the theatre that if you are trying to reach a large number of people in order to get them talking about your ideas, you have to appreciate the mass nature of contemporary fiction. I like knowing that I have been able to generate discussion of ideas that are important to me though my fiction as well as through my plays. I intend to keep writing in both forms depending on how the idea occurs to me. I'm working on a new novel at this time and then I have a new play in my head to begin working on, so I don't see any end to it. And thank goodness!