Pearl Cleage

Author Pearl Cleage

Pearl Cleage remembers clearly the moment of conception for her play Flyin’ West, and the experience still startles her.

“I was driving down the freeway in Atlanta and I heard (the character of) Miss Leah telling me about walking west after her children and husband had died,” she says. “It was so real, it was unnerving.”

Cleage pulled off the freeway, parked and began writing what she had heard in her mind. Miss Leah’s original narrative evolved into the playwright’s 1992 historical drama focused on the mass migration of African Americans — largely led by women — from a repressive, post-Civil War south to the American West in search of better lives.

Flyin’ West was the country’s most-produced play in 1994, Cleage says with pride. It’s also the next production for Milwaukee’s Bronzeville Arts Ensemble, scheduled for a May 24–27 run at the Wilson Theater in Marcus Center for the Performing Arts’ Vogel Hall.

Flyin’ West is a play that I have wanted to direct for many years,” says Sheri Williams Pannell, the ensemble’s producing artistic director who’s heading the production. “I believe it sets a precedent by presenting a period in American history that is generally not taught in school.

“It also explores issues such as race relations, women’s rights, domestic violence and the dream of home ownership,” she adds. “The topics are as relevant today as they were in 1898, when the play takes place.”

Cleage — currently the Mellon Playwright in Residence at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre — said her original inspiration first led her to try place Miss Leah in a variety of contemporary situations. None of them worked. The character, she says, just wouldn’t have any of the author’s “fake ideas.”

“That monologue in my head led me to resign myself to writing a play which required research I did not think I wanted to do. I was so wrong,” Cleage says. “Doing the research for the play allowed me to see these characters in a completely new way, and I appreciated them as pioneers, as participants in the early life of their country in a way I hadn’t seen before.”

 

‘Women just like me’

Historically, the migration was triggered by the Homestead Act of 1862, which offered 160 acres of free land — much of it seized from Native American tribes — to anyone willing to settle in the West. An estimated quarter-million unmarried and widowed African-American women wound up running their own farms and ranches in various western states and territories.

Cleage’s play focuses on the aftermath of the so-called “Exodus of 1879,” when some 40,000 African Americans — under the guidance of Benjamin “Pap” Singleton — migrated to Kansas, a sanctuary state for runaway slaves during the Civil War. The action centers around Nicodemus, Kansas, which today is the only remaining African-American community established as part of the migration.

Cleage conducted extensive research into diaries, journals and other first-person accounts by the women who had traveled west. Much of what she read inspired her on both personal and literary levels.

“I felt these women were just like me — trying to be free, trying to be honorable, trying not to be oppressed because of their race or their gender,” she says. “I started wondering if I would have had the courage to go west with Pap Singleton, all the way to Kansas. And if I did, what would I need to remind me of home?”

Flyin’ West — originally commissioned by the Alliance Theatre Company — concerns the lives and struggles of its four female principles to own and maintain a safe homestead in a rugged, largely untested part of the country. Some had been slaves, others the descendants of slaves and, along with two male characters, all bear the scars of a communal past held in bondage.

“I wanted the story to show how new families were created out of the ashes of the destruction of the family in slavery,” Cleage says. “We have sisters of the heart as well as of the blood.”

Pannell admires the play’s characters and narrative, seeing it as an important work that transcends race and gender issues.

“I hope people will support this play and this kind of storytelling,” the Milwaukee native says. “This is not just African-American history, it’s American history and without plays like this, we would miss it.”

Pannell also agrees with Cleage’s broad definition of family and, especially, sisterhood. Both women attended Atlanta’s Spelman College as students and Cleage taught drama at Spelman for many years after graduation.

“She is my ‘Spelman sister,’” Pannell says.

The Bronzeville Arts Ensemble’s production of Flyin’ West runs May 24–27 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts’ Wilson Theater in Vogel Hall, 929 N. Water St., Milwaukee. Tickets are $35 and can be purchased at the Marcus Center box office, by calling 414-273-7206, or by visiting marcuscenter.org.

 

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