By Deborah Bailey,
AFRO Contributing Editor,
Ford’s Theatre is bringing in its 2023 fall season with a world premiere from widely acclaimed author, poet and playwright Pearl Cleage. “Something Moving: A Meditation on Maynard” will be performed on stage through Oct. 15.
Cleage was commissioned by Ford’s Theatre to put on the show as part of Ford’s Theatre Legacy Commissions Initiative. She is the first Legacy Commissions playwright to receive full production. Cleage completed the workshop with the theater in February of this year and had her preview performance on Sept. 22. The program provides an opportunity for Ford’s Theatre to engage Black, and other ethnic playwrights of color as the theater re-imagines its legacy– beyond being the location where President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.
“This is a play about ordinary people doing something extraordinary,” said Seema Sueko, director. Sueko worked closely with Cleage to take the play from the page to the stage.
The play is focused on Maynard Jackson who was born on March 23,1938 in Dallas and died on June 23,2003 in Arlington, Va. Jackson served as the first Black Mayor of Atlanta from 1974 to 1982 and again from 1990 to 1994, according to Britannica. But make no mistake, the play is not a nostalgic reflection of the past.
Cleage’s play is set in Atlanta and explores the thoughts of current residents. The dimensions of the city’s multi-ethnic population are on full display, as every day citizens reflect on Jackson’s election as the first Black mayor of the fastest growing metropolitan area in the South. The work provides a point of reference and features the increasingly multi-ethnic diversity of American cities today.
“I wanted to look at that moment as a time when many different communities in Atlanta came together in a way they never had before to elect this man we all felt was absolutely the right person to lead us,” Cleage said.
The script includes young Latin, Asian, East Indian and American Indian voices , in addition to others, who were not considered at the time of Jackson’s election. She explores race, class, sexual orientation and gender issues present during Jackson’s lifetime – and those that persist today.
The actors speak their truth about concerns Jackson addressed as well as new issues that have pierced the public policy landscape since his days in office including immigration, the deepening housing crisis and incidents of overt racial discrimination impacting the Asian American community.
Sheldon Epps, senior artistic director at Ford’s Theatre, said the play is about America.
“I’m very proud of the fact that it has become a play about America and not just Atlanta,” Epps said at a post show discussion that followed the opening night production.
Epps, former artistic director at Pasadena Playhouse, was first invited to Ford’s Theatre in 2019 as the historic playhouse sought to transform its image and bring in theater depicting more diverse themes and voices.
The play’s message resonated differently with each individual who attended the evening’s performance. Dominique Torres, who lives in Maryland and teaches in Alexandria, Va. came to opening night to preview the play for her students, who she will bring next week. Torres said the play will let them know their voices and observations of life’s events matter.
“Everyone has a story. We become closer by sharing our stories,” Torres said.
Su Rae Stewart of Maryland said the play took her back to the atmosphere in America after President Barack Obama’s first election in 2008.
“I was in the military and came back for Obama’s election,” said Stewart, who lives in Maryland, but was stationed in Alaska at the time of Obama’s first election.
“The feelings expressed by the actors in the play after Maynard Jackson’s election as mayor were the same feelings in America after Obama was elected. There was joy but also resentment,” Stewart reflected.
“After Obama was elected, some people thought we were coming after them. But all we ever wanted was equality, not revenge,” Stewart said, a theme reflected in the play.
Epps affirmed the wide range of reactions.
“A play is supposed to evoke a range of sentiments and emotions from our audience. That’s our job.”