From Broadway to your local community playhouse, the pandemic put live theater on hold. But the theater is slowly coming back. Joining GPB Morning Edition host Leah Fleming to talk about that and more is playwright, best-selling author, poet and political activist Pearl Cleage. She's currently the playwright in residence at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta.

Leah Fleming: I was at a play, at an outdoor theater in Harlem, New York, earlier this month. And it was the first production to happen in New York City since the pandemic shut everything down. And I have to tell you, it was so moving to just be in that space. How are you feeling about the reopening of theater in moments like that?

Pearl Cleage: Well, I am, of course, because I'm a theater person and I love the theater. I work in the theater and I love the theater, so of course, I'm happy to see the theaters coming back. I hope that we will continue to be conscious of safety protocols because we're still dealing with the pandemic. But I'm so happy that we're finding ways to come back and to be around the people who love the theater and support the theater. And it's just a wonderful reawakening for all of us.

Leah Fleming: Your 2009 play, Angry, Raucous and Shamelessly Gorgeous, was among the productions that was halted by the pandemic. So, what's happening with that production? Will it resume? 

Pearl Cleage: Well, it played. It finished its run here in Atlanta and then it's scheduled for several other productions around the country. It actually was scheduled for seven productions around the country when the theaters had to close down. So they're gradually coming back. And we've already had two of the theaters who have now reconfirmed their opening and want to do the play. So I think the play is going to have a really long life. And there's some people interested in it in New York, which is also always a wonderful thing. So the play is going to do really well, I think.

Leah Fleming: And what's happening at the Alliance Theater? Before we went on the air here, it was quite loud there.

Pearl Cleage: We're really a rowdy place at this time. We've got camps with young people here. We've got a movie-television series that's shooting here. But the main thing that I'm doing right now is The Palefsky Collision Project, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary. I've been doing it for 11 years. And it's a program where we bring together 20 teenagers from around metro Atlanta and we create an original piece with them in three weeks. So we always start with a basic kind of text that they look at, but basically just to get their ideas and think about what they might think about these texts from other times and places and then create a piece that's solely their own. And this year, our jumping off text is Marvin Gaye's wonderful album that's celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, What's Going On? So they're encountering Marvin Gaye asking that question, "What's going on?" at a moment when they're just coming out of their isolation for a year and they're asking that same question, "What's going on?" So it's a wonderful program. And, we've been working for two weeks now. We've got two performances. So we're very much looking forward to it. And the kids are very excited, too. 

Leah Fleming: Oh, and they should be. "What's Going On?" is a powerful song that actually is very relevant today. And what we have been experiencing, not just with the pandemic, but also this moment of racial reckoning that started last summer, of course, in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd. And I'm wondering, how did 2020 inspire you in your activism? 

Pearl Cleage: Well, I believe that there's no time when an activist or an artist can stop being engaged with the world. And I think that one of the things that people are sometimes confused about, especially young artists, are what are we supposed to do at a moment like this? At a moment of crisis? You know, how can we work? How can we do the work we normally do? And my answer to them is we can't do the work we normally do because this isn't a normal time. And we have to think about this as almost like wartime. What do we do when we face a situation we've never faced before as artists? And my feeling is if we're singers, we sing louder. If we're writers, we write more. If we're actors, we try to find someplace to do the work that we do because art and culture are so important in building community and keeping community alive and keeping people connected. And at this moment, I think that's one of the things that we need in our country more than anything is a sense of connection, a commonality of community. And I think that's what culture can do. And that for me, during 2020, my resolve at the beginning of people locking down things in isolation was to say, "I'm going to write as fast as I can. I'm going to accept every commission. I'm going to do short plays. I'm going to do outdoor plays. I'm going to do Zoom plays, but I'm going to keep working" because that's when an artist’s voice is so necessary — at a moment of crisis, for us to hear an artist talking about our lives and talking about how we can relate to our neighbors in a more positive and productive way.

Leah Fleming: According to NPR, the website saw a huge increase in traffic during the pandemic and Maya Angelou's famous poem, "Still I Rise," that alone received about 30% more visits on the Academy of American Poets' website. But that doesn't surprise you, does it?

Pearl Cleage: It really doesn’t, especially not with that poem. I mean, Maya was a good friend of mine, and I think of her often. But that poem, I think any time you encounter that poem, you feel stronger, you feel bolder, you feel more grown, like you can do the work you came here to do. So, I'm not surprised at all. I think, you know, we should have that poem on the side of every building saying, “Remember this! Remember this when you feel depressed, when you feel sad. Say this poem and you instantly feel better.”

Leah Fleming: In April, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms appointed you as the city's first ever poet laureate. Talk a little bit about what that means. I imagine that's very special for you. 

Pearl Cleage: Well, it was really wonderful. I mean, I admire her and I admire her support for the art. She has always been incredibly supportive of arts institutions and also of individual artists. And I think that's partly because her father, Major Lance, was a wonderful singer, a great artist who wasn't able to fulfill all of the artistic dreams that he had. So I think that she carries a lot of that, her father's spirit with her. So it was a great honor for me. I love Atlanta and I believe that poetry is very important and that writing is really important. So that my idea about being the poet laureate is really to try to continue to interest people in poetry, to interest young people in writing poetry and thinking about poetry and all of those things. But it's a brand new position. So it's really something that, you know, I'm talking to people about and trying to figure out how we can make those programs accessible and create some programs that actually draw people into poetry. So I'm looking forward to that.

Leah Fleming: It was important to you that theaters be held accountable following the Black Lives Matter movement last year. What moves toward diversity are you calling for? Do you see any noticeable progress even in the field of arts? 

Pearl Cleage: Oh, I do. It isn't that it came to me last year that we needed to work on this. This is something that the American theater has had to work on for a long time because we have separate tracks. You know, we have theaters that are predominantly for African American audiences. We have theaters that are predominantly for Asian American audiences. And then we have theaters that we tend to think of as mainstream because they are the larger institutions. But the idea of saying "mainstream" really covers up a lot of the racial dynamics that have to be talked about in the world of the theater and in the world of American arts. So that I think that people are beginning to talk about the theater in a very direct way. I really admire what some of the young people here at the Alliance Theater have done in terms of raising questions about how we proceed, who we see our audience as being, how we begin to reach out beyond what our traditional audience might have been to other people. And I'm very proud of what of what this theater has been able to do. Specifically, one of our most productive partnerships is with Spelman College, which has a wonderful drama department. And part of the problem that American theaters will point to predominantly white theaters where the leadership and the and the audiences have been predominantly white. What the leadership will say is, “Well, we don't get through the pipeline. We don't get, you know, bright Black people who want to do this. We don't get great Japanese American people who want to do this.” And when Susan Booth and I talked about this, I said right across town we've got the Atlanta University Center full of bright young Black people who want to do theater. Let's see if we can work out that kind of partnership where we create a pipeline to bring these young people into this theater. And as a Spelman graduate, I know any place you put a Spelman woman, she's going to excel. So we have now Spelman interns, we have Spelman fellows. We have several people who have graduated through that program and are now staff members at this theater so that there are many, many ways that these theaters can open their doors. It's basically a question of changing the decision point, who sees the problem and who is prepared to address it. And we've been very lucky at this theater that we've had an artistic director who is really prepared to grapple with all of these questions. And when you really get down to it, it's not that complicated. Open the doors. Let people in. Atlanta's an incredibly diverse community and every single community in this town produces theater. We all do theater. We all sing and dance. So it's like, let's make this Woodruff Arts Center like Lincoln Center, where it belongs to the city of Atlanta, where it looks like the city of Atlanta and where it reflects the city of Atlanta. And that's my reason for being here. That's the real thing that I think is so important for me to be a part of that transition from the old days to the future. 

Leah Fleming: Finally, I want to ask you: Republican lawmakers in Georgia and nationwide have been pushing to limit what is taught about American history through critical race theory. Do you see the arts as maybe a way of telling that history?

Pearl Cleage: I do, I absolutely do, and I think that that attempt to control the teaching of truth is awful. I think the attempt to demonize "The 1619 Project" is awful. We live in a state that was a slave state where people used to buy and sell and breed other human beings. And we can't deny that. We have to admit it. We have to look at it and we have to be sure it never creeps into anything that we do. And it's not a difficult question to decide, "Let's teach the truth." And I think that has to happen. I think it's the same thing with theater, that we have to. Whatever the play is about, whatever the show is about, at the bottom of it, we're going to be trying to tell the truth about human beings, about people. And that's not just the good stuff. That's the good, the bad and the ugly. Because the thing is, if we look at everything, we can see how complicated people are, but we can also see how alike we are, how we all can be in the same room together, listening to the truth and arrive at that as something that is desirable and necessary. So I really I strongly, strongly object to all of these attempts not to let young people look at their own history and come to their conclusions. These children did not grow up owning slaves. They don't have to feel guilty about slavery. They have to feel determined to make sure their country never does anything like that again. And that's a positive thing that only comes from teaching truth.