Back to Alabama with Cleage and Baldwin: 2 Southern Playwrights Get Personal with the History of the Civil Rights Movement

Article excerpt

AMERICA'S COLLECTIVE MEMORY OF THE CIVIL Rights Movement is catalogued from a public database of headlines and photographs, marches and boycotts, martyrs and villains. We sometimes forget that in the inner sanctums of cities such as Selma, Atlanta and Jackson, ordinary people engaged in private dramas the same way that humans always have: falling in love, having children, trying to put food on the table, worrying about sickness and death.

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In two plays debuting this fall, Atlanta playwrights Pearl Cleage and Margaret Baldwin dig into the rich, messy, complicated lives of two Alabama families as they watch history unfold from behind lace-curtained windows, circa the mid-'60s. Cleage's The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of Your Presence at a Celebration of Their First One Hundred Years, about an upper-crust Montgomery family preparing for a society cotillion, runs at Alabama Shakespeare Festival, where it was commissioned, through Oct. 3, then plays Atlanta's Alliance Theatre Oct. 20-Nov. 14. Baldwin's Night Blooms, about the relationship between a white Selma family and its black maid on the cusp of the third Selma-to-Montgomery inarch of 1965, runs through Oct. 24 at Atlanta's Horizon Theatre as part of the company's New South Play Festival.

In an uncanny feat of timing, Cleage, 61--a well-established playwright (Blues for an Alabama Sky, Flyin' West) and best-selling novelist with an Oprah Book Club title (What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day)--and Baldwin, 42, an up-and-comer who teaches theatre at Atlanta's Kennesaw State University and has written original plays for Horizon (Her Little House) and Georgia Shakespeare (Tom Thumb the Great)--have created milieus that are just a few miles and months apart. In Night Blooms, Selma matriarch Lucille Stafford decides to have a cocktail party to witness the rare dowering of her late mother's treasured night-blooming cereus plant, so she calls in her maid, Geneva Willis, to fry the chicken and make the potato salad. Never mind that the whole world is watching Selma. In Nacirema Society, Montgomery maven Grace Dubose Dunbar is preparing for her granddaughter's debutante ball and trying to keep a lid on family secrets. In the real world outside, Martin Luther King Jr. is picking up his Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, and organizers are preparing for what will turn into "Bloody Sunday" in Selma.

On a blazing June day, as Baldwin poured iced tea and served crackers, fruit and pimento cheese in the sunny upstairs Atlanta condo she uses as a writing space, the two playwrights met for the first time and engaged in lively conversation about the convergence of history and art.

WENDELL BROCK: Both your plays arc set: in Alabama during the tumultous '60s. Tell me about your roots in the South.

PEARL CLEAGE: I grew up in Detroit, but my maternal grandparents came from Alabama and my paternal grandparents came from Tennessee and Kentucky. So all my grandparents are Southern. When people in my family talk about where they came from, they always talk about Alabama. I came to Atlanta in 1969 and I've been here ever since.

MARGARET BALDWIN: I grew up in Atlanta and lived here until I was about 16, when my family moved to Virginia. My Alabama connection is from my mother's side. She grew up in Selma, and we spent all of our holidays there. I spent every Christmas there for the first 17 years of my life. I thought that Santa Claus came just to Selma. My grand mother's home is such a big, big image in my life, and I think in some ways that's my creative home. That's where I used to play dress-up for hours on end. I used to make up stories, and I was also very moved by the relationships that I saw there, particularly the relationship between my grandmother and the woman who worked for her her whole life, basically, and ended up nursing her through her death.

How did the plays come about?

CLEAGE: I wanted to write a play set in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement. …