Atlanta author Pearl Cleage has written successful plays, nonfiction, poetry collections and novels, including the best seller “What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day,” which was an Oprah’s Book Club selection in 1998. “Flyin’ West,” her 1992 play about pioneering black homesteaders in Kansas at the turn of the last century, is one of the most produced contemporary plays in the United States in the past two decades. The New York Times called the work, now in production at Marietta’s Theatre in the Square, “potent” and “gripping.”
We caught up with Cleage to discuss “Flyin’ West” on its 20th anniversary.
ArtsATL: In the program notes for the 20th-anniversary production of “Flyin’ West,” you write that the origin of the play was hearing the voice of the character “Miss Leah” speak to you. Could you talk about that moment?
Pearl Cleage: Well, I’d never really had that kind of experience before. I’m not a mystical kind of writer where I go someplace and the voices of my characters speak to me. I was driving down the freeway, and I heard a woman’s voice talking and it sounded like she was sitting in the back seat of my car. She was talking about having had 10 children in slavery, and they were all sold away. She was talking so clearly that I actually turned around to see if someone had gotten into my car while it was parked. And of course there was no one there. I was trying to write down what she said and drive on the freeway, which was not a good idea. I got off the freeway at Piedmont and International Boulevard and pulled into a little parking lot and just wrote down what I remembered she had said, and it made its way into the play almost exactly as I’d heard it.
It was amazing to me, because I’d never had that experience before and because I had not had an interest in these settlements or that part of American history. I had known something about the settlements but hadn’t really been trying to dig into that part of history. But I was like, “I’m enough of a mystic to know a sign when I see one.”
ArtsATL: Of course, that moment did end up leading to a lot of research.
Cleage: My first thought, being a lazy person, was “maybe I can make this person be a really, really old character,” because I didn’t want to do all that historical research. But the character was not happy with me trying to place her in present-day southwest Atlanta. So I had to actually go and start reading about these settlements. There are wonderful books about them, lots of primary materials, letters and journals.
Women especially wrote a lot of letters and journals, because they were living in such harsh conditions on the frontier. They would miss their mothers, miss their sisters. When they got ready to have babies, they were always very nervous because they were out in the middle of no place, where there were no other women to help them. They talked about the issues that women still talk about: family and childbirth and problems with relationships and all of that. It was very clear to me that the people I was writing about were not some vague historical figures but were actually real, living, breathing people who had exactly the same kinds of problems and concerns that people have now.
ArtsATL: Did any of the characters emerge directly from the research, or were they composites of women you came across?
Cleage: No, they’re not based on real people. I try really hard not to do that. Once you read about all these people, then my job as a writer is to create some fictional characters who could have lived in this time and place. None of them are based on anything. There was a moment when a film company was looking at “Flyin’ West” to see if it might be a film. And the person asked my agent if they needed to get releases from the family, from the baby that’s born at the end of the show. My agent called me up and was like, “These aren’t real people, are they?” What a great thing for somebody to think they’re so real they need to get a release to make a movie.
ArtsATL: Was the play’s setting, the town of Nicodemus, a real place?
Cleage: Nicodemus was one of the bigger and more thriving of the settlements. That’s why all of that is in the play about the speculators and the railroad going through. Nicodemus was one of the places that was in the original path for the railroad to go through. It would have been great for the town, but then they moved the path 40 miles away. But it still is a little town that exists. It’s a tiny, tiny place. There aren’t many people living there at all. It’s right there in the middle of the Kansas prairie, and it has some of the original buildings that were there in 1898.
My husband went while I was finishing up the play. He was driving across the country and he saw a sign that said, “Historic Nicodemus, Kansas,” so he pulled off the freeway and took some photographs. It looked exactly as I imagined. There’s this little cluster of buildings and then there’s the great plains, just a big beautiful open space. He brought me back a plant from Nicodemus, which we had for years. We brought it along to several of the out-of-town productions, but it got lost somewhere in the touring.
ArtsATL: Are there still descendants of the original black pioneers there?
Cleage: There are. They actually do a homecoming festival. People come back who have relatives who were in Nicodemus. Last year, they did a piece of the “Flyin’ West” ballet that Ballethnic Dance Company created. They’re actually trying to figure out how they can mount a full production of “Flyin’ West,” but it’s out there in the middle of the prairie, so it’s hard to get actors to go.
ArtsATL: How did the play end up being produced at the Alliance Theatre in 1992, and how did it take off from there?
Cleage: When I finally surrendered to having to do the research and writing the play, I was fascinated with what I was discovering. Kenny Leon, who had been a friend of mine for years, had just been appointed artistic director at the Alliance. He called me up and asked if I had anything I wanted to develop. Of course I said, “Absolutely.” He commissioned the play and we developed it from there.
He directed that first production of it, and it went really, really well. It became something other people heard about. So it got picked up and picked up and picked up. It actually became the most produced play in the country in 1994. The number of productions floored me. They even did a production in London. All different kinds of people will come to me and say, “That character really reminds me of my grandmother.” It’s the thing that you always hope is true as a writer: if you can tell as specifically as possible the story you know, the story that you want to tell, it’s going to reach the common humanity of everyone who comes to see it. That has been the most gratifying thing about “Flyin’ West” to me, that people really relate to these characters as if they were family.
ArtsATL: You mentioned that someone was trying to get releases to make a film version. Do you think there’ll ever be a movie made?
Cleage: I don’t know. I don’t have any real inroads into that world. Every now and then, someone will have seen it somewhere and want to make a movie. But they don’t make nearly as many westerns as they used to. People have looked at it, but as far as I know nobody has any concrete plans to make a movie out of it. I think it would lend itself, because then you could actually see all of that stuff like the Kansas prairie.
The challenge for a playwright is to make you see that stuff with the words as opposed to saying, “OK, now we’re going to take this camera and ride across the prairie so you can see how big the prairie is,” which is the tool that filmmakers have. For us as playwrights we have to say, “How can I make these people say something that will let the audience see something in their own mind even though we’re not showing it?” I like that part of being a playwright. You’ve got to make the picture with the words…. But who knows? Life is long, and maybe someone will make it into a movie. I’d love to see it as a film.
ArtsATL: There’s a 20th-anniversary production of “Flyin’ West” at Theatre in the Square, but will you have any other way of celebrating the anniversary, a personal way to mark the occasion?
Cleage: I didn’t even realize it was 20 years until they asked me to write a little program note. It’s just hard to believe it’s been 20 years. The best way for me to have celebrated that is to be able to see the production of the play 20 years later. I think they did such a great job with it. That cast is wonderful. I can’t possibly go to every production, but being able to see a production of it 20 years later that’s still fresh, that still makes sense, that still elicits a very strong response from the audience and gives an amazing group of actors a chance to do some of the best work I’ve seen them do — that was the big celebration to me. I was able to create something that has a life and lives in people and goes on. I can’t ask for more.