Congo Square stages Pearl Cleage's story of feminist awakening.
Pearl Cleage drew on her own journals to write this 2012 play inspired by her days as speechwriter and press secretary for Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first African-American mayor. Though Cleage wished ultimately to address the intersecton of race and gender politics, the tone here is broad comedy, played on a one-room set that recalls ’70s-era sitcoms like Three’s Company or The Jeffersons.
The play follows a group of campaign workers in Atlanta, just after the mayoral race of 1973. Within this small group, a love triangle plays out among rising politician J.P. Madison (Darren Jones), his secretary Anne (Kristin Ellis) and John (Ronnel Taylor). We never meet the mayor himself, as he quickly becomes beside the point. More important here is the return of Evie (Shanesia Davis), J.P.’s ex-wife; the play shifts to become about Evie’s story of awakening—the rise of her feminist consciousness, and her influence on the younger women here, through a series of long monologues about what she learned in Paris.
This is not a tightly scripted play; the plot itself feels secondary to the ideas explored via digressive conversations or monologues about race, gender, femininity and self-actualization. Like Doris Lessing’s landmark Golden Notebook, a novel tracing the awakening consciousness of white women in the ’60s, Cleage’s story traces the awakening of black feminists, disregarded both by mainstream feminism and black power movements (where women’s rights were subsumed by the needs of the revolution).
In fact, the youngest woman here, Anne, is so willing to put her needs aside that she considers marrying J.P., whom she does not love. This is one of the less credible threads, as is the ending, where Cleage ties everything up too tidily. Still, there’s much insight here, and the cast is excellent, especially Davis, whose role demands long speeches relating her journey from wife of a famous politician to empowered woman who travels to Paris alone and learns to love herself. Lena (Alexis J. Rogers) is adorable as she listens to these speeches with mugging and deadpan interest; Ellis's Anne is fascinated and inspired. Despite Evie’s diva streak, her drive to warn Anne away from making the same mistake she did is heartening.