Bonus Material

Politics, Generational Change, and Community in Pearl Cleage’s Something Moving: A Meditation on Maynard

Nathan Pugh, Mekela Sridhar, and Divinia Shorter

October 12, 2023

Nathan Pugh

Nathan Pugh (he/him) is a writer, journalist, and culture critic based in the Washington, D.C. area. He is gay, biracial, and Filipino American. Pugh’s writing focuses on identity in performance both on and off the stage (with special attention paid to race, sexuality, gender, and nationality). His bylines include Theatrely, DC Theater Arts, DCist, and NPR’s It’s Been a Minute and Code Switch. In 2021, Pugh graduated from Wesleyan University where he was a theater and English major with a concentration in race/ethnicity; during the spring 2021 semester, he served as an Editor-in-Chief of the Wesleyan Argus. He currently works as a copywriter for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Pugh is available for contact through his website and on Insta/Twitter @nathanpugh_3.

Mekala Sridhar

Mekala Sridhar (she/her) is a DC-based theatre director, playwright, and producer currently working as the BOLD Associate Producer at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. She has previously worked in artistic and producorial capacities at Baltimore Center Stage, Blindspot Collective, Cleveland Play House, the National Alliance for Musical Theatre, and Studio Theatre. Past writing credits include Women Like A River at BorderLight Festival, when the bubble bursts at La Jolla Playhouse’s WOW Festival, and A Different Nostalgia at Dixon Place. Her directing credits include A Wake at Singh's (workshop) at Prologue Theatre, Salome and 1708 at Sarah Lawrence College and (re)Move West at Accademia Dell'Arte. Select assistant directing credits include Pass Over, Good Bones (reading), and Aspen Ideas (workshop) at Studio Theatre, What You Are at The Old Globe, and Light Years Away at La Jolla Playhouse. Mekala's artmaking is grounded in creating radically inclusive, collaborative work, and helping transform the institutions she is a part of to be more equitable, community-oriented spaces is central to her practice. She holds a BA in Theatre, Literature, and Psychology from Sarah Lawrence College and received additional training from Moscow Art Theatre School and Accademia Dell'Arte.

Divinia Shorter

Divinia Shorter (she/her) is a queer, Black Latina writer, dramaturg, and director freelancing in the DMV and beyond. She is an associate with LINK Strategic Partners and the co-founder of Greatest City Collective, a non-profit focused on uplifting artists and the social causes they care about. She is host to the Collective’s podcast Bus Ride Talks. A writer of many forms, her current focus is a YA novel and her full length play Queens, being worked on at Towson University. Her dramaturgical writing is available online here and here. Dramaturgy credits include: Studio Theatre, TheatreSquared, Rorschach Theatre Company, Adventure Theatre, Nashville Repertory Theatre, Roundabout Theatre Company, UC Santa Barbara, Imagination Stage, Bay Area Playwrights Festival, and Towson University.

Divinia: Pearl Cleage’s Something Moving: A Meditation on Maynard is a communal retelling of the moments surrounding Maynard Jackson’s political career in Atlanta, Georgia as the first black mayor in the Deep South. Led by The Witness (Billie Krishawn), a community artist and organizer in Atlanta, nine actors (both in life and the play) volunteered to join this 50th-anniversary story of Maynard Jackson. While the room has a script, it increasingly falls away as these actors become Citizens telling the story of Maynard’s time with Atlanta and the impact it’s left on us now.

The show left me feeling grateful and hopeful. By the title, I’d assumed I was walking into a biographical play that would walk us through Maynard’s life. While the play does provide that, it adds movement, flow, and varied perspective that makes the walk through history thoughtful and active. Without being naive, the play guides the audience to the idea that community change is possible and in the hands of citizens, not just politicians.

Nathan: The show left me feeling wistful. I was happy to watch a working democracy on stage, but sad that I don’t see that happening in D.C. Although the play discusses disturbing material, it’s overwhelmingly hopeful about the future of U.S. politics, and the ways in which people can come together to create change.

Divinia: Maynard Jackson became the mayor of Atlanta in 1973, and his story as the deep South’s first Black mayor, Something Moving: A Meditation on Maynard, premiered in D.C. in 2023. While seeming out of place, D.C. is America’s political capital and the city where the first Black president was inaugurated. D.C. and the wider DMV region are also home to a number of HBCUs, some of whom were in the audience when we saw this show. HBCUs play a vital role in the script, with Jackson hailing from Morehouse, and Cleage herself from Howard.

Seeing Howard students sitting with Washingtonian theatergoers, and watching D.C. actors and community members bringing this Atlanta story to life, I wondered about the theater’s ability to bring one community to another. As this piece moves on, how will Cleage’s work bring Atlanta to other cities, especially those who don’t have the same connecting threads as D.C.

Nathan: A small thread in Something Moving was that over time, a lot of cultural history is being lost, as community members who were actually there pass away. That’s where the cross-generational elements of the show really work for me: Something Moving is an attempt to capture a historical mood and pass it onto people who were born after it happened. There’s an argument here that younger generations need to understand how their existence is possible, and the people that paved the way for them. That, to me, is what Something Moving passes on even more than Maynard Jackson’s story: a curiosity of my parent’s or grandparent’s generations.

It’s also fascinating to me that this show premiered in D.C. and not Atlanta. Obviously, Ford’s Theatre produced the show, but I wonder if people are willing to accept shows set in the recent past or in unfamiliar places because it feels less confrontational. These “recent past” settings could allow audiences to make local connections themselves, or they could let us off the hook from truly seeing ourselves. Either way, a production of Something Moving in Atlanta could make real what’s only imagined here.

Mekala: I have found the verbatim work (a form of theatre-making that uses interviews from real people, often without altering the text, to create a piece) that I have been a part of to be so deeply vulnerable: it is theatre that is made for, with, and in community.

My mentors in this form have often impressed upon me

how important and delicate this work can be,

how we must honor the words that others have shared with us.

To create with others’ words

There’s something sacred in that.

This play sets out to decenter one political figure, and instead brings in a multiplicity of voices to the narrative, positing that history cannot be made without the collective. Considering that, the container of the piece being a group of actors coming together to devise a piece based on written memories of community members feels in harmony with that notion.

But throughout, there were moments that felt at odds with how the piece seemed to claim it was created. The play often attempted to give voice to other perspectives, but did so in a way that never felt grounded in reality. I felt myself grow suspicious of the framing device that we were presented with at the top of the show.  

During the talkback, we heard that the piece wasn’t crafted through several interviews in the way that verbatim theatre typically is, but instead that the stories that were collaged together in the piece were all generated by Cleage, some through her personal experiences of working with Maynards and others from her imaginings.

As I reflect on this, I find myself in awe of Cleage, of all that she has seen, done, been a part of.

And I find myself bereft of the community that was promised in what I now see were merely the trappings of verbatim theatre. And does this not then still center one voice, one perspective, one figure within history?

Divinia: There is definitely a reverence I have for Cleage and her ability to bring so much to life without the voices of others. Something Moving is wonderfully colored with big and small strokes of the Atlanta community pulled from Cleage’s own experience. But I did feel that grief Mekala spoke of. When learning that these perspectives were fiction, I felt both awe and disappointment. The citizens I thought I’d gotten to know weren’t actually present, and it left a wave of loneliness I wasn’t prepared for. I don’t know if I find this centering one experience, on the assumption that Cleage pulled from what she witnessed as much as what she lived, but it certainly shifted how I was able to see this meditation on the figure of Maynard Jackson.

Nathan: I think we also have to think about how this play was produced at all: it’s the first production to come out of Ford’s Theatre Legacy Commissions initiative, a program designed to foster biographical plays of “underrepresented characters and less-known historical figures.” A big factor behind the marketing and producing of this play is that Pearl Cleage is such a renowned cultural figure.

I’m always excited when theaters create programming around playwrights. However, one of the main goals of Something Moving is to try to dismantle “great man theories” of history, and prove that history isn’t only made by key influential figures. Does theater likewise need to divest away from “great playwright” theories? If Ford’s Theatre does want to tell communal stories, maybe they need to create an initiative that devises plays communally.

I wished the play had just been upfront about the fact that much of what we were seeing was fictional, instead of presenting itself as if it were a journalistic show like The Laramie Project. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want every play I see to be based in reality. But why not say upfront that this is based on Cleage’s real-life experiences working for Maynard? Why make us learn about the fictive elements in a talkback that much of the audience didn’t attend? Mekala and Divinia, you both felt grief, but I felt betrayal. I don’t go into the theater expecting to see facts, but seeing fictional characters say that they’re real people is misleading at best, and harmful at worst.

I will say, the idea of collective history is the strongest idea put forth in the show. Besides a few key moments, Maynard isn’t really embodied onstage by the actors. Something Moving is full of digressions into specific life stories: a Jewish woman discussing her history with anti-Semitism, a couple discussing walking their dogs on intense historical sites, a domestic worker remembering her resentment of her white employers. It feels like a collection of short stories, not a biography.

There is a tension here between telling the life story of a politician and the individual stories of people in Atlanta. All of that tension is in the show’s title. Cleage could’ve called the play Maynard: A Meditation on Something Moving. Instead, she prioritizes the “something moving,” since actors in the show say they feel “something moving.” It's a bold move to title the show something so poetic, but I wonder if Cleage should’ve gone further and dropped “Maynard” from the title. Maybe that would change the framing of the story definitively.

Divinia: Transforming our perspectives on history from Huge Moments to a communal viewpoint is part of what makes Something Moving so special. Cleage has created a preciousness to memory that cherishes the voices of those who came before us, loud or not. Every Citizen portrays stories of work, joy, frustration, relief, rage, not by revolving around the big moments of one man’s career, but by working through the small ones. As we hear Iris, a long-time houseworker for a prominent white family in Atlanta, recall the dinner she worked serving Jackson and his team, we focus not on Jackson, but on her last night of work for this family. As she destroys their precious slave-era glassware that survived the Civil War, Cleage embodies the depths and connections to history we all hold simply by existing in it.

The show does an excellent job weaving short stories of Citizens into a narrative tale that tells its audience how Maynard Jackson became the big historical figure he’s known as. What I find less successful is whether there is enough room in Cleage’s Citizens and script to allow us to ask those same questions. I left with a feeling of understanding for Atlanta, and respect for Jackson, but not a desire to continue questioning how we tell history. While strong and impactful, the collective telling of the show doesn’t cross the barrier of that fourth wall to ignite a collective telling of our own stories.

Nathan: A moment in this show that we’ve all been thinking about is when the non-Black people of color step into the show and discuss 20th century civil rights movements too often ignored: Native American/Indigenous rights, Latinx rights, Asian rights.

Usually, when I see these concerns brought up within contemporary plays, it’s in a scathingly comedic way: just look at how white characters take over conversations on race in satires like Slave Play, Appropriate, or The Thanksgiving Play. But in Something Moving, there’s no satire. The concerns of non-Black people of color are treated completely seriously. I wonder, though, if there should’ve been space for rebuttal from the other actors who were “devising” the show

Mekala: Yes, there is no satire. And it was shocking because the piece was often littered with microaggressions that were brushed over in the name of sincerity. For me, it’s less that I want a moment of dissent or argument, but more that I found myself craving a nuanced take. How can you hold both the fact that yes, as the Witness says, these stories should be told as a part of history, AND the way/when these conversations are approached is important?

Divinia: It’s a strong Hand of Playwright moment, that almost throws the entire feeling of the play before it’s really launched. As a Black woman, it also created some discomfort seeing The Witness, played by a Black woman, interrupted and cornered into this discussion, though I lean into this discomfort in the consideration that Cleage may have had to have this reckoning herself, even if just internally.

Nathan: Something this play got me thinking about was generational divides. I felt inspired hearing all of the stories about people rallying around a common political goal and achieving it. But then I also realized this is an experience I’ve never felt myself.

I was born in 1999. So when a lot of millennials and others were swept up in the common goal of getting Obama elected in 2008, I was only nine and couldn’t truly be involved in the political process. I was 17 in the fall of 2016, and missed my chance to vote by a few months. When I was finally able to vote in a presidential election in 2020, it was at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even though I voted for Biden, I didn’t celebrate or feel anything like joy. Honestly, being involved in the political process (at least in voting) fills me with dread. I’ve never fully felt inspired by a major political candidate I’ve voted for.

I just know that I’m not alone in feeling this. Much has been written about Gen Z’s lack of trust in institutions, or their disillusionment in democracy. Something Moving comes firmly on the side of trusting the political process and voting, saying that “no one has come up with a better solution.” Still, I wonder: what would it take for a large swath of people to be inspired and rally around a political candidate, the way they did for “firsts” like Maynard or Obama?

Divinia: I think beyond being firsts, the more important factor is a call to personhood. Jackson and Obama both inspired communities to listen. Both can’t seem to be spoken about without mentioning their charisma and ability to capture audiences. Coupled with their commitment to making themselves known in communities, as well as promises to fix problems on a big and small scale (looking into government housing, better work opportunities, education, etc) I think they created a recipe for being the celebrity politicians they were. I will also, with a massive grain of salt and no endorsement, point out that this recipe works on both sides of the aisle. While most any leftist won’t see it, the reality is that for the right wing, Trump offered these same qualities: their version of charisma (‘real talk’), commitment to making himself known, and promises to fix big and small problems that those on the right side of the aisle care about. My counter question is whether or not celebrity politics has caused more harm than good. We see the way Jackson’s party failed to meet expectations, lived through Obama’s era of fame and limited presidential power, and many did not survive Trump’s ineffective time in office. I often feel that a number of generations, younger and older, have caught onto this and that disillusionment makes it hard for anyone to pull rallies the way Jackson did. On this front, I often wonder where politics can go from here, and don’t really know.

Mekala: A question I would add to this though is: was it ever about Maynard (or any one individual)? Maybe a singular political figure can serve as an inciting incident, but where do power and possibility for true change lie? What is it to reframe our understanding of these moments in political history (as I think the play asks us to do) and realize that what is in action here is the collective? I think the play urges us to find deep hope in what we can achieve in community.

Nathan: Mekala, it’s interesting to think about individuals as “inciting incidents” for political change. In the Black Lives Matter movement, this takes on an even heavier feeling: people are inspired to action by the deaths of people like George Floyd and Sandra Bland, but I’m not sure people are as inspired to action by any living politicians. Maybe these politicians don’t have the necessary “charisma” that Divinia talks about. Maybe political figures like Obama have disappointed enough Americans that these peoples’ approach to politics has irrevocably changed.

Speaking of generational divides, there’s another moment in the show where an older male character says the line “payback’s a bitch,” and a younger female character asks if they would refrain from using that language. The older male character quickly comes up with the line “What goes around comes around” and everything goes back to normal.

In my experience, conversations about language like this don’t go as smoothly, can be filled with arguments and frustration. Why wasn’t that here? The rehearsal space in the show felt like a utopian ideal, where all the actors and characters have grievances, but nobody gets hurt. Every disagreement is quickly smoothed over in a way that’s refreshing but also idealistic.

Mekala: I’m not sure I need to see folks “get hurt” in the rehearsal room. But I do wish we could have seen the group grapple with moments of tension a bit, rather than the tension simply sublimating itself without any real conversation. If we are likening a rehearsal process to building a better society for all of us to exist within, then let’s explore how that can happen. The play seems to want to explore generational differences and divides, but without actually holding space for both the tensions and synergies present in those dynamics, it feels hollow.

Divinia: I actually will dissent a bit here. I think the play wants to keep focus on hope and progression. In that vein, it attempts to show what that looks like in motion: when an idea is put forward to create a safer space, it’s not a fight. The collective sees the request for safety and adapts. Whether this is true safety or not can certainly be up for debate, but that’s my assumption of the playwright keeping a narrative in line with the value they want to put forward, real or not.

Nathan: Maybe we can acknowledge that proposing a political model and staging a dramatic story are two very different things. Cleage is imagining intergenerational “safe spaces” where ideas can flow freely, and arguments are sorted out. But from a playwriting perspective, maybe this isn’t the most entertaining thing to watch. Friction, arguments, disagreements, tension: these are the elements of a compelling story. When these things are resolved so quickly in the play’s plot, maybe it’s not as interesting of a story.

Mekala: There’s a scene set in the present day where a queer couple talk about walking hand-in-hand, listening to the music of a nearby saxophone player, while exchanging pleasantries with a police officer. They extoll this exchange with the officer as proof of the idyllic world they live in now and reflect on how far we’ve come. I can’t help but wonder: Is this the dream the show hopes to achieve? Is this the dream we hope to achieve? I find myself thinking about Stop Cop City and am reminded of the activist and organizer Mariame Kaba whose work centers transformative justice and the abolition of prisons and policing. To me, theatre and the work of movement-building are so intertwined. Theatre in its every facet is world-building. It gives us the space to imagine how we can exist in relation to one another in the most expansive way possible. Theatre can not only serve as an imagination exercise in that way, but also transcend that and become a way to practice creating such ways of existing (especially when thinking about forms like Forum theatre).

In her words and work, Kaba shares with us the impossibility of imagining and creating a better world, a more just, liberated world, while still holding in place the oppressive structures of this one. So why should our dreams of the future be limited to a friendly cop whom we can wave to but still, ultimately, upholds the violence of the prison industrial complex when we have the ability to dream and create beyond that? Kaba reminds us, “As writer and educator Erica Meiners suggests: ‘Liberation under oppression is unthinkable by design.’ It’s time for a jailbreak of the imagination in order to make the impossible possible.”

Nathan: Maybe the politics of Something Moving are just the mainstream politics of the 20th century civil rights movement: racial liberalism. In her book about Arena Stage, scholar Donatella Galella defines racial liberalism as “entail[ing] the enfranchisement of people of color to gain civil rights, integration, and equal opportunity. It endorses reform rather than revolution or even reparations to create a society without prejudice.” Something Moving is representative of racial liberalism: both Maynard and Cleage advocate for working within inherited institutions, not outside of them. Post-2020, I just think many are seeing the limits of this practice. A lot of people voted for Joe Biden and protested in the streets and created artwork, but didn’t see our government fundamentally become better between 2019 and now. I still admire anyone who’s reforming current systems, but I think everyone should spend time imagining a future beyond those systems.

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