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Release: March 7, 2002

Oprah's-choice writer Pearl Cleage is playwright for Iowa Summer Rep 2002

Atlanta playwright, fiction writer, poet and essayist Pearl Cleage, whose debut novel was an Oprah's Book Club choice, will be the featured playwright of Iowa Summer Rep 2002. The festival of Cleage's 1990s plays -- "Flyin' West," "Blues for an Alabama Sky" and "Bourbon at the Border" -- will be performed by the University of Iowa Department of Theatre Arts summer professional company June 26 through July 28 in the UI Theatre Building.

"Pearl Cleage writes elegantly, poignantly and with humor about the 'life' in history, and its effect on the present," says UI theater faculty member Eric Forsythe, who is the artistic director of Iowa Summer Rep. "We've chosen these plays to represent not only the breadth and depth of her work, but also to trace significant moments in the last hundred years of African-American experience. No one writes more vital or relevant plays today."

Iowa Summer Rep 2002 will be the first theater festival ever dedicated to Cleage's plays.

Cleage, who has been playwright in residence at Spelman College and at the Just US Theater Company in Atlanta, has written plays that have been produced professionally for more than 20 years. Her early play "Hospice" won five AUDELCO Awards for Outstanding Achievement Off-Broadway in 1983.

But Cleage was boosted to a new level of public awareness when Oprah's Book Club recommended her novel "What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day" in 1997, a certification that sent the book onto the bestseller lists.

Her most recent novel, "I Wish I Had a Red Dress," won the top fiction honor in the 2002 Literary Awards of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association, Inc.

In "Flyin' West," which for two years in the early 1990s was the most-produced play in the country, Cleage focuses on four "Exodusters," black women in the 1890s who hoped to escape the racism of the south by homesteading in the Midwest.

The idea for the play, which is set in the real-life black utopian settlement of Nicodemus, Kansas, came to Cleage from the writings of Ida B. Wells, a turn of the century Memphis newspaper columnist who urged African-Americans to go west, rather than north, in search of greater freedom
-- and some 40,000 did so, creating black pioneer settlements.

Cleage again turned to African-American history for the basis of "Blues for an Alabama Sky," which is set in the 1930s -- the waning days of the Harlem Renaissance. The play focuses on Angel Allen, a down-on-her-luck blues singer who, after breaking up with her white gangster boyfriend, contemplates marriage to young black man from the rural South.

Angel's neighbors include a gay clothes designer with dreams of living in Paris and designing for Josephine Baker, and an earnest woman trying to open a birth control clinic in Harlem. The play was produced in 1996 by the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., starring Phylicia Rashad.

In "Bourbon at the Border," first staged at the Atlanta's Alliance Theatre in 1997, Cleage deals with the aftermath of historical events. A group of middle-aged characters cope with the memory of their experience as young activists in the 1960s when their attempts to register black voters in Mississippi met with violent resistance.

It was important to Cleage that the characters in the play were depicted as regular working people, not legendary radicals or rarified intellectuals. "There's this feeling that everyone in the civil rights movement was either martyred and killed or they not only survived but went on to be elected mayor or go to Congress," Cleage to the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. "It's a feeling that everybody involved was a great warrior."

The themes of Cleage's plays began to form early in her life, as the daughter of a minister and a school teacher. She recalled, "By the time I was eight or nine, I understood clearly that slavery and racism had created a complex set of circumstances that impacted daily on my life as an African-American. . . I also knew that as a person who had the advantage of growing up in a house where there were books, it was my responsibility once I achieved adulthood to work consciously to 'uplift the race,' or at least as much of it as I could, given limited resources, human frailty and the awesome implacability of the group itself."

Before dedicating her energies to writing, Cleage worked at a variety of jobs in the media, including host of a black-oriented interview program in Atlanta. In the mid-1970s, she served as director of communications for the city of Atlanta and press secretary for Mayor Maynard Jackson.

Cleage's essays have appear in Essence, the New York Times Book Review, Ms., Atlanta Magazine, Pride, Black World, the Afro-American Review and other publications. She has been a columnist for the Atlanta Gazette, the Atlanta Tribune and the Atlanta Constitution, and she was the founding editor of Catalyst, a literary magazine.

Cleage's other books include the poetry collections "We Don't Need No Music," "Dear Dark Faces," and "One for the Brothers"; the essay collections "Mad at Miles: A Blackwoman's Guide to Truth" and "Deals with the Devil: And Other Reasons to Riot"; the short-story collection "The Brass Bed and Other Stories"; and the non-fiction work "Dreamers and Dealmakers: An Insider's Guide to the Other Atlanta."

A subscription brochure for Iowa Summer Rep will be circulated in the late spring, and individual tickets will go on sale in the summer.

For many seasons Iowa Summer Rep has pursued a unique focus in American summer theater with its single-playwright festivals, but three seasons ago Iowa Summer Rep also became an Actor's Equity Company, elevating its status as a professional theater company.

The department of theatre arts is part of the Division of Performing Arts in the UI College of Liberal Arts. For UI arts information, visit < > on the World Wide Web. To receive UI arts news by e-mail, contact < >.