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The passion of pioneers
The AASU Masquers stage Pearl Cleage's 19th century drama Flyin' West
A scene from the Masquers production of "Flyin' West" (Photo courtesy AASU).

Opening March 3, Pearl Cleage's drama Flyin' West is the spring mainstage production for the Masquers of Armstrong Atlantic State University. Dr. Elizabeth Desnoyers-Colas, an assistant professor in speech communication, directs.

Flyin' West is set in a dusty Kansas town in 1898. A group of African American women has fled Tennessee, where civil rights are still essentially unknown in those immediate post-Emancipation days. They are pioneers in every sense of the word.

The play was written by Atlanta-based Pearl Cleage, a novelist, essayist, activist and playwright whose latest book, Till You Hear From Me, will be published next month.

Cleage's first novel, 1997's What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, was championed by Oprah Winfrey and her book club, and spent nine weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.

First produced at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Flyin' West became the most-produced American play of 1994. Said the Washington Post about a recent revival: "It ain't exactly subtle. It's sentimental, manipulative and far too entertaining to resist."

We spoke with the playwright from her home in Atlanta.

Did you know what arc you wanted to take when you began this play? And how did it come to you?

Pearl Cleage: It never occurred to me that I would want to write a history play, ever. I had always written plays that were set in the time where I was living.

I was driving down the freeway, and - this sounds really crazy - I heard a voice singing some of Miss Leah's lines. She's the old woman in the play. She was talking about having children while she was in slavery, and then all her children dying of yellow fever, and her husband dying after Emancipation. And then just leaving the South and walking to Kansas.
It was such a real thing. And I'm not a writer who has those kinds of experiences, where you go in your office and the characters talk to you. I wish some of the characters would talk to me! This was so real that I actually got off the Interstate and looked to be sure somebody wasn't in the car.

But I had enough sense to write down what she had said.

Did it make sense at the time?

Pearl Cleage: I started thinking, who is this, and what are they talking about? I knew, of course, about the "Great Migration," I knew about groups of black people going west after the Civil War. But I didn't know enough about it to feel comfortable writing a play. So I kept trying to create a plot where she could be this really, really, really old woman, but she lived in contemporary Atlanta. And that did not work at all. So I had to go back and do all this research.

I read all these journals from pioneer women. It was an absolutely wonderful experience for me. I was delighted to find that many of the things these women were writing about, and thinking about, were the same things that contemporary women were thinking about: All of the questions of love, marriage, childbirth, loneliness, and how you'd make a family out there in the middle of the prairie. All of those things were expressed in terms that sounded very familiar to me as a modern woman. What would I have been thinking if I had been one of those women going west? What would I have wanted to take with me?

It was a wonderful experience, and not one that I've ever had again, where I actually hear the voice. I keep trying to listen to see if I'll hear another one.

Leaving Memphis for Nicodemus, Kansas in 1898 - would things really be different there?

Pearl Cleage: Totally. People actually did it. Ida B. Wells was a great African American journalist who was very radical and very active in the anti-lynching movement. And after a terrible lynching, where two of her friends were killed, she wrote an editorial in the paper saying "We should leave this place where our lives aren't worth two cents, and we should go west." Where we can makes new lives, where we don't have to be in this kind of environment. She said, specifically, "If I could fly, I would fly away west."

Entire churches of people responded to her idea that the West would be a great place. They packed up and went together, in wagon trains away from the former Confederacy. Into a place where they could homestead and start all-black towns, where they wouldn't have to deal with all of the Civil War Reconstruction racism that they were confronting.

Was it a process of discovery, writing it?

Pearl Cleage: Just like any pioneers, they were ready to risk what they knew for the promise of what they hoped for. And I think that's really what this story is about - to me, it's a really American story, but it's one we don't see as much as we see the John Wayne movies.

One of the things that was so much fun for me was creating a character like Sophie, who got to say things to the bad guy like "Get off my land!" Now, I love Westerns, but I grew up watching great big tall white males tell people to get off their land. I got to make a little black woman saying the John Wayne line. So how much fun was that for me?

In the end, what do you want people to take away from Flyin' West?

Pearl Cleage: Just that it's a story about family. It's a story about an American family. People who don't know the history will come to it perhaps thinking "OK, this is a history lesson." But my intention was to create a family that reminded people of any family. They've got secrets, and they've got things they want, and they've got people who are problematic, people who are saintly, and people who are a combination of both.

One of the great things about this country is that all of our histories are so mashed up together, that if you look at the history of one group you'll find your own group in there. Because all of our families are doing the same thing - trying to find a place to live in peace, and to raise their children.

Flyin' West

Where: Jenkins Hall, Armstrong Atlantic State University, 11935 Abercorn St.

When: At 7:30 p.m. March 3-5 and 10-12; 3 p.m. March 6

Tickets: $10; free for ASSU students with ID