Thus Cleage, 74, conceived of the play “Something Moving: A Meditation on Maynard,” which forgoes the opportunity to depict Jackson and instead unpacks his legacy through the eyes of his constituents. In the world-premiere production, onstage at Ford’s Theatre through Oct. 15 to mark the 50th anniversary of Jackson’s election, nine citizens and one omnipresent “Witness” gather to reflect on that galvanizing moment.
“She’s invoking us to feel what they felt back then,” director Seema Sueko says. “This is a piece and a story that has the potential to transform our hearts and remind us of the beauty of when a diverse group of people — I mean, people from all walks of life and experiences and ideologies — actually think about what it would mean to build a just community and work toward that.”
Cleage arrived in Atlanta in the summer of 1969 after studying playwrighting at Howard University and, upon seeing Jackson speak out against police brutality on television, was immediately struck by his astute stances and charisma. When Jackson, then the vice mayor, ran for the top office in 1973, Cleage volunteered to write speeches for his campaign. After his historic victory, he brought the 26-year-old Cleage to City Hall as his press secretary.
“I don’t remember there being a time when there was no Pearl Cleage in my life,” says Jackson’s daughter Beth Hodges. “Officially, she was a staff member of the campaign … but she always felt like family to me.”
Although Cleage found she was ill-fitted to City Hall bureaucracy, leaving her post midway through Jackson’s first term to resume her creative writing pursuits, she returned to work for his reelection campaign. As she found a foothold in the arts over the subsequent decades, writing numerous novels, essays and poems and more than a dozen plays, Jackson lingered in her mind.
When Ford’s Theatre contacted Cleage last year about its Legacy Commissions initiative — a newly established incubator for stories involving social justice, racial history, underrepresented characters and lesser-known historical figures — Cleage floated the idea of commemorating Jackson 20 years after his death. Once Ford’s gave the go-ahead, Cleage got to work not on a conventional history play about Jackson’s three terms in office but on a dramatized discourse in which average citizens revisit a more positive political era.
“I really was less interested in writing something that was kind of a biopic,” Cleage says. “What I was much more interested in was trying to create some fictional characters who could speak in a way that would make people watching remember what it felt like to be here at a moment like this — at a transitional moment, at a really optimistic, hopeful moment, when people actually had a different kind of faith in politics.”
Summarizing Cleage’s script, Sueko poses that “it’s really a poem that’s masquerading as a play.”
Overseen by the Witness, an emcee partially inspired by the Stage Manager in “Our Town,” “Something Moving” begins with nine citizens gathering for a rehearsal in a former high school auditorium. As specified in Cleage’s script, those characters range in age from 20 to 60 and represent Black, Jewish, Asian American, European American, Latina and Indigenous identities.
While Cleage says each of her previous plays called for an all-Black cast, the nature of Jackson’s impact necessitated a broader approach. In the Witness’s words, “The idea is that the collective voice leads to the only true history.”
“Can we make this story big enough to also include Asian Americans and Latinos and Indigenous people?” Cleage recalls asking herself. “The answer has to be, ‘Yes, we can.’ Because if everybody is involved in living the story, then we have to find a way to let everybody be involved in telling the story and being a part of that story.”
The ensuing dialogue covers Jackson’s historic 1973 election, 1977 reelection and return to the mayor’s office for a third term in the 1990s. Although the free-flowing conversation touches on the high points of Jackson’s tenure, including his successes creating opportunities for Black businesses and bringing the 1996 Summer Olympics to Atlanta, it doesn’t shy from the 1977 sanitation strike, the Atlanta child murders and other dark times in his tenure.
Still, Cleage is the first to acknowledge she “wasn’t really trying to create a balanced portrait” of Jackson in “Something Moving.” She set out to capture Jackson as she remembered him — flaws and all — and knew all along she was the right person for the job.
“I didn’t have any trepidation about it, or feeling that maybe I won’t get it right,” Cleage says. “You know, I’ve waited 50 years to write this play. I knew I could get it right.”
Something Moving: A Meditation on Maynard
Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. 888-616-0270. fords.org.