Pearl Cleage isn’t from Chicago, but she’s been produced enough here that she feels like an adopted playwright at least. Now-defunct Eclipse Theatre Company (dedicated to the one playwright, one season model) offered a season of Cleage plays back in 2007, and that same year, Court Theatre did a stunning revival of her 1992 frontier drama Flyin’ West. Now Cleage (the first poet laureate of Atlanta, where her work has frequently premiered at Alliance Theatre), gets her very own citywide festival. Last week, Remy Bumppo kicked off the Pearl Cleage Festival with their stellar revival of Cleage’s 1995 Depression-era Harlem drama, Blues for an Alabama Sky.
The common thread connecting the work by the 74-year-old Cleage is an emphasis on exploring the unsung or hidden lives of Black women at various points along the timeline of U.S. history. In Flyin’ West, a group of Black women tied together by affinity farm together in the all-Black community of Nicodemus, Kansas, in 1898, where they try to leave behind the traumas of slavery and Reconstruction they endured in Tennessee. In Blues, two very seemingly different women—a nightclub singer and a contraception advocate—find their lives (and that of the men who court and care for them) growing ever more entwined across the hallway of their Harlem apartments.
The Nacirema Society
Through 10/15: Wed 7:30 PM, Thu 2 and 7:30 PM, Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 2 and 7:30 PM, Sun 2 PM; also Sun 10/1 7:30 PM; ASL interpretation Fri 10/13, touch tour and audio description Sat 10/14 2 PM (touch tour 12:30 PM), Spanish subtitles Sat 10/14 7:30 PM, open captions Sun 10/15 2 PM; Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, 312-443-3800, goodmantheatre.org, $25-$85
The Nacirema Society, Goodman’s season opener and main contribution to the Cleage Festival, is set in Montgomery, Alabama, in December 1964. (Susan V. Booth, now the Goodman artistic director and formerly artistic director of Alliance, directed the world premiere at Alliance in 2010; Lili-Anne Brown does the honors for the Goodman.) Memories of the 1955 bus boycott may linger for many of the working-class Black families, but for Grace Dubose Dunbar (E. Faye Butler), the doyenne of the titular upper-class Black social club in Montgomery, the boycott was mostly an inconvenience. (So hard to get her maid to and from work!)
The Nacirema Society is about to present its centennial ball, and Grace’s granddaughter, Gracie (Demetra Dee), is the first among equals of the new debutantes. (The full title of the play is The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of Your Presence at a Celebration of Their First One Hundred Years, and the name of the society is simply “American” backwards—seemingly an homage to Horace Miner’s 1956 tongue-in-cheek anthropological paper “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema.”)
But there are storm clouds on the horizon. Janet Logan (Jaye Ladymore), a New York Times reporter whose earlier piece on the Naciremas was filled with critical quotes from those not involved in this exclusive world, is back on the scene. Grace and her friend and fellow Nacirema, Catherine Adams Green (Ora Jones) harbor hopes that Catherine’s grandson Bobby (Eric Gerard), a soon-to-be-doctor (as is de rigueur for Nacirema men) will marry Gracie and keep the line going. But Gracie has her own ideas (including renouncing a scholarship at Fisk, the only acceptable Nacirema university, and studying creative writing at Barnard instead).
So when Alpha Campbell Jackson (Tyla Abercrumbie), the daughter of Grace’s late maid, Lillie, shows up from Harlem with a bombshell revelation, it’s the spark that ignites the pile of farcical combustibles.
At nearly three hours, one might think that the jokes would start wearing thin, and the narrative twists would become maybe one too many. And sure, there are probably places that some of the action could be tightened up for the sake of running time. But the great joy of this play is that Cleage deftly handles so many different kinds of conflict (class, intergenerational, reverence for tradition vs. yearning for change) without becoming preachy. There’s no sense that the comedy needs to stop in order to work in a very special insight about those themes—which just makes them resonate even more. All these women (Bobby is the only man in the story, and he feels slightly ancillary, to be honest) feel resolutely and completely themselves, living without apology. (That includes the show-stealing turn from Shariba Rivers as Jessie, Grace’s maid, who doesn’t have a single line but communicates volumes with her body language and facial expressions.)
Brown and her bravura ensemble cover the narrative bases like all-star infielders on Arnel Sancianco’s set, which moves us from the richly appointed but slightly fusty home of Grace to the simple kitchen where Alpha and her activist daughter and soon-to-be med student, Lillie (Felicia Oduh), work out their own differences. Samantha Jones’s costumes reveal character right along with the tensions between gentility and informality underscoring some of the conflicts between Grace and the younger generation.
That gentility and tradition isn’t just a shallow pretense. As Butler’s Grace tells Ladymore’s skeptical journalist, “Those Nacirema white dresses were our suits of armor, our protection from who they said we were and our assertion of who we know ourselves to be.” The Nacirema Society celebrates Pearl Cleage alongside the Black women whose voices she’s always centered in her work.