Sunday, August 1, 2010

Atlanta Writers Connect over an Alabama Sky

Atlanta Writers Connection: Jasmine Guy and Pearl Cleage

When I was growing up, I watched a lot of TV. From the classics like the 'Mary Tyler Moore Show' and 'Taxi' on Nick at Nite to 'Inside the Actors Studio' on Bravo, I knew everything there was to know about the actors, directors, and producers on each show. I was a true TV fan.

One of my favorite shows was and still is A Different World. I loved this show partly because I dreamed that I would have the same college experience as the Hillmanites did. I also loved how they focused on real issues like Apartheid and racial profiling that other shows have conveniently avoided. Secretly, I loved the show because of one of the main characters:Whitley Gilbert. At first glance, Whitley was annoying, obnoxious, and pretentious. Later on, you got to see that Whitley was a product of her environment; she embodied Southern Charm and expected nothing but the best. I secretly wanted to be just like her. What I did not realize at the time was that I admired her character because it was so well acted. Jasmine Guy was the reason that A Different World held a warm place in my heart.

Jasmine Guy was raised in Atlanta and attended Northside Performing Arts High School (which later became North Atlanta High School). We know her for her dramatic turns as Whitley (relax, relate, release!) but Jasmine is also a trained dancer and singer. You may have seen her in the countless TV shows and films that she has been in over the years. What you may not know, is that Jasmine Guy is a writer.

In 2005, Guy penned the book Afeni Shakur: Evolution of a Revolutionary which chronicles the struggles of rapper/poet Tupac Amaru Shakur's mother as she was a member of the Black Panthers. Guy befriended Tupac after he guest starred on an episode of A Different World and felt inspired to tell his mother's story almost ten years after his death. After interviewing Afeni Shakur for seven years, Guy told the tale of a woman who came from a troubled upbringing and used her pugnacious spirit to become a part of one of America's most feared social/political groups in our history. I admire Guy for venturing outside of what people would expect of her to expose this woman's story.

This brings me to another Atlanta writer who ventures outside of what is expected to bring her readers her perspective on black and women's issues.

Pearl Cleage, pronounced 'cleg', has lived in Atlanta since she enrolled in Spelman College in the late 1960's. Since then, her work has been recognized as a New York Times Bestseller and her novel What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day was highlighted as an Oprah Book Club selection in 1998. In addition to numerous novels and poems, Cleage has also worked as a
speech writer and a press secretary for Atlanta's mayor Maynard Jackson and as a columnist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution and the Atlanta Tribune.

What strikes me the most about Pearl Cleage is her success in the theater world. Cleage has written several plays and her work has been included in noteworthy anthologies:

  • Flyin West
  • Bourbon at the Border
  • Blues for an Alabama Sky (directed and commissioned by Kenny Leon)
  • The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of Your Presence at a Celebration of Their First One-Hundred Years
  • Anthologies: Double Stitch, New Plays from the Women's Project, Contemporary Plays by Women of Color

Cleage and Guy first collaborated during a revival of Blues for an Alabama Sky at the Alliance Theater in 2009. The play highlights the lives of artists during the Harlem Renaissance. Guy played the female lead role of Angel, a former backup singer at the Cotton Club. This play not only sheds light on the artistic revolution that took place during the Harlem Renaissance, but it also talks about the effect that political tensions had on the creative souls of this time period. Despite the explosion of art that Harlem artists were exposed to, the characters question whether or not Harlem's opportunities will help them fulfill their dreams. One character in particular, a Tuskegee transplant, longs for refuge from the turmoil as he reminisces about "Alabama Skies, where the stars are so thick it's bright as day".

Through my research of Pearl Cleage and Jasmine Guy,
it seems obvious that a story like this
would bring the two women together. The two writers share a passion for the arts and the written world as well as dark topics that most people shy away from, like those presented in this production.

Cleage and Guy will team up again in one of the productions of the Alliance Theater's 2010-
2011 play season. Guy has joined the cast of The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of Your Presence at a Celebration of Their First One-Hundred Years. This new romantic comedy by Cleage takes a unique approach on the history of black debutantes from Alabama during a time of freedom rallies and bus boycotts.

Through this exploration of Atlanta writers, I learned about the dedication that Pearl Cleage and Jasmine Guy have to the written word. Both writers have involved themselves in projects that are entertaining and make the audience/reader think about important social issues. I admire them both and look forward to seeing their 2nd collaboration come together next year.

I hope I have enlightened some of my readers on two Atlanta writers who deserve some recognition. Leave a comment if you are familiar with Pearl Cleage or Jasmine Guy's work. Also, leave a comment if you have recently seen a play production, film, or read a book where the writer has stepped outside the box like Cleage or Guy.

Jessica Ebony

"I am writing to help understand the full effects of being black and female in a culture that is both racist and sexist. I am writing to try and communicate that information to my sisters first and then to any brothers of good will and honest intent who will take the time to listen...I am writing to allow myself to feel the anger. I am writing to keep from running toward it or away from it or into anybody's arms...I am writing, writing, writing, for my life" - Pearl Cleage


  1. I say Ms. Guy last week at "Shaking the Mess Out of Misery"...she was sitting in the audience at Horizon Theater. We also share an alma mater!

  2. I saw Jasmine Guy on "Vampire Diaries" and it looks like she has aged quite a bit since her Whitley days. I don't know if that was intentional with makeup though since she was supposed to play Bonnie's grandmother.