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By Joslyn Housley McLaughlin

Goodman Theatre requests the honor of your presence at a celebration of American playwright, essayist, novelist, poet, and activist, Pearl Cleage. Born the younger of two daughters in Springfield, Massachusetts to Doris and Albert Cleage, a schoolteacher and minister respectively, Cleage grew up in an environment defined by social and political activism. Fleeing backlash against Albert Cleage’s radical messages from the pulpit, the family moved to Detroit where her father continued his civil rights work. Cleage’s childhood home was host to a steady stream of artists, writers, and civil rights leaders. The seeds of Cleage’s own politics and activism were sown early and served as thematic engines for her extensive body of work.

Cleage studied playwriting at Howard University in Washington DC where she produced two one-act plays. She completed her bachelor’s degree in drama at Spelman College in Atlanta in 1971. Right after, Cleage began studies for her master’s degree at Clark Atlanta University. She went on work as the press secretary and speech writer for Atlanta’s first African American mayor, Maynard Jackson, but left the position to forge a career as an author.

Cleage produced her first piece, Puppetplay, in 1981. She followed up with Hospice (1983), Good News (1984), and Essentials (1985). The 90s saw Cleage’s most famous works debut at the Alliance Theatre: Flyin’ West, Blues for an Alabama Sky, and Bourbon at the Border. Bourbon at the Border is a look back at the Civil rights movement through the eyes of two survivors of racial violence. In Blues for an Alabama Sky, Cleage transports us to 1930s Harlem with this richly told depression-era love story. Set in Kansas in 1898, Flyin’ West tells the tale of a Black homesteading family in the American West. Flyin’ West has been produced nationwide with notable productions in New York, Atlanta, and at The Kennedy Center. An anthology of Cleage’s dramatic works, Flyin’ West and Other Plays was published in 1999.

Cleage’s greater body of work expands beyond the theater world. She is the founder and editor of the literary magazine Catalyst and was a frequent contributor to the Atlanta Tribune. She has published articles for a host of other influential newspapers and magazines including The Washington Post, Essence Magazine, and The New York Times Book Review. In the 90s, Cleage added “novelist” to her list of hyphenates with What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, an Oprah Book Club selection. Ever true to her activist roots, Cleage’s novel, which spent nine weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, follows a young African American woman as she tackles issues of race, sexuality, gender, class, and ableism after she is diagnosed with HIV. Cleage continues to pen best sellers including, I Wish I Had a Red Dress, Some Things I Never Thought I’d Do, and Babylon Sisters. On a commission from Oprah Winfrey, she co-wrote the 2007 NAACP Image Award nominated poem, We Speak Your Name with her husband, writer Zaron Burnett, Jr. Cleage collaborated again with Burnett and artist Radcliffe Bailey on a children’s book, My Granny’s Garden for The Mayor’s Reading Club 2019.

From 1986 to 1991, Cleage served as the Cosby Endowed chair Professor at Spelman College and was named playwright in residence there in 1991 before moving on to teach at Smith College. She has also held appointments as playwright in residence and artistic director of the Just Us Theatre Company. In 1993, Cleage became playwright in residence at Alliance Theatre for two consecutive three-year stints. In addition to being named Outstanding Columnist by the Atlanta Association of Black Journalists, Cleage has won five AUDELCO awards; the Bronze Jubilee Award for Literature; the Black Caucus of the American Library Association Literary award; Best Work of Fiction and a lifetime achievement award from the Georgia Writes Association; the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work—Fiction; the Gene-Gabriel Moore Playwriting Award; the Atlanta Black Theatre Festival’s Theatre Legend and Sankofa Freedom Awards; and was inducted into the Atlanta Business League’s Women’s Hall of Fame and the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.

Kicking off the 2023/2024 Goodman Season is The Nacirema Society, Cleage’s uproarious comedy of manners that centers on an African American social club in 1964. Cleage imbues this exploration of race, class, and gender with her signature optimism. It is, indeed, Cleage’s belief in positive change and the power of love that defines her work and reminds us that her activist heart beats at the core of everything she writes.