Playwright Pearl Cleage had a front-row seat on the remarkable rise of Maynard Jackson, who in 1973 was elected as Atlanta’s first Black mayor. As Jackson’s press secretary and speechwriter, Cleage had a West Wing–like intimacy with the Mayor and his circle. But rather than plumb the inner workings of the campaign and administration she served, Cleage’s new play looks outward toward the people who elected him. The result is Something Moving: A Meditation on Maynard, a unique, time-bending, animated lesson in history.
A diverse group of actors, identified only as Citizens 1 through 9, gather in an old Atlanta schoolroom, now part of a facility that serves the community. They have the rehearsal space for two hours — a glee club is scheduled to use the room right after them. They are welcomed by a woman who claims she is neither the director nor the playwright but rather The Witness. Do they know who Maynard Jackson is, asks The Witness. A young woman shoots her hand up and then awkwardly lowers it. “I thought she meant Michael,” she whispers.
The Witness has her work cut out for her. She revs up an old carousel slide projector and commences to teach. Jackson was not America’s first Black mayor, but he was the first Black mayoral candidate to triumph in the South.
Knowledge of Jackson — who he was and what he represented — varies greatly among the group, depending on their age and ethnicity. Some recall the euphoria of that election night. Younger members are foggy about Jackson’s importance. Listening closely, The Witness tells the startled Citizens that their comments will be written into the play. The actors gradually help mold their Citizen roles, creating a fascinating, multi-faceted composite of Jackson’s larger-than-life persona and his profound effects on the community over time.
We’re reminded that history is never a single narrative, but a collection of individual stories out of which we make and remake meaning for posterity. By the time the glee club members are at the classroom door, we’ve been enveloped in a rich, 90-minute dreamlike journey from which we are reluctant to awake.
The play’s delicate structure requires a firm hand to guide the actors between their “real life” and scripted roles. Seema Sueko collaborated closely with Cleage to bring this fascinating project to life at its Ford’s Theatre world premiere. Under Sueko’s direction, the Citizens morph into a variety of characters, each of whom has a slightly different perspective. Ivania Stark’s costume design and Milagros Ponce de León’s set design underscore the amusing ragtag randomness of the assembly of actors.
Among the most memorable are the older members of the cast, who are given the most to do. Kim Bey as Citizen 1 is initially skeptical of the whole project. Then she executes, among other personas, a star turn as an indignant Black maid who finally rebels against her patronizing white employer (an excellent Susan Rome as Citizen 5) in the most hilarious and humiliating way possible. Citizen 3 (Doug Brown) learned about Martin Luther King’s assassination two days after the fact while he was serving in Vietnam. There was no time to mourn, he bitterly recalled. Tom Story (Citizen 6) talks about Jackson’s easy acceptance of Atlanta’s gay population.
An incandescent Billie Krishawn as The Witness weaves the stories together. Presumably serving as the playwright’s alter ego (as well as the dramaturg), Krishawn darts across the stage with balletic grace, disarming and cajoling the initially wary cast. She instructs her players about the facts of Jackson’s life while listening carefully to their own experiences and recollections. Soon, the younger members of the cast come to believe what the veteran players lovingly recall. Maynard Jackson was the right man for the moment. His generous spirit and political acumen culminated in a historic win not only for himself but for Atlanta. For one brief shining moment, just eight years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, Black Atlantans felt their power to create a New South.
The play was developed as part of the Ford’s Theatre Legacy Commissions, which invite playwrights across the country to shine a light on historical figures who have not received all the attention they deserve. In the 50th-anniversary year of Jackson’s historic election, we understand that his triumph was a start, not a culmination. For every step the South and indeed the nation takes forward, countervailing cultural and political forces threaten to drag us back. There have been and will be many bumps on the road to true equality.
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
Something Moving: A Meditation on Maynard plays through October 15, 2023, (Tuesdays to Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m.), at Ford’s Theatre, 514 10th Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets are on sale online and range from $23 to $53. Discounts are available for groups, senior citizens, military personnel, and those younger than 40. For more information, call (202) 347-4833 or (888) 616-0270 (toll-free).
The production is recommended for ages 8 and older.
The cast and artistic team credits as well as a downloadable digital program are available here.
COVID Safety: Face masks are optional. Ford’s complete COVID-19 Health and Safety plan is here.
Audio-described performances of Something Moving: A Meditation on Maynard are on Wednesday, October 11 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, October 14 at 2 p.m. Accessible seating is available in the rear orchestra.
All performances of Something Moving: A Meditation on Maynard will be captioned via the GalaPro App. GalaPro is available from the App Store or Google Play and allows patrons to access captioning on demand through their phone or tablet device. Patrons set their phones to airplane mode and connect to the local GalaPro WiFi network before the performance begins. More information at www.fords.org/visit/
Something Moving: A Meditation on Maynard
Playwright: Pearl Cleage
Director: Seema Sueko
Scenic Designer: Milagros Ponce de León
Costume Designer: Ivania Stack
Lighting Designer: Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew
Sound Designer: André J. Pluess
Projection Designer: Shawn Duan
Hair and Makeup Designer: Danna Rosedahl
Dramaturg: Faedra Chatard Carpenter
Dialects and Voice Director: Lisa Nathans
Production Stage Manager: Brandon Prendergast
Assistant Stage Manager: Julia Singer
Billie Krishawn (The Witness)
Kim Bey (Citizen 1)
Constance Swain (Citizen 2)
Doug Brown (Citizen 3)
Shaquille Stewart (Citizen 4)
Susan Rome (Citizen 5)
Tom Story (Citizen 6)
Alina Collins Maldonado (Citizen 7)
Shubhangi Kuchibhotla (Citizen 8)
Derek Garza (Citizen 9)
‘Power in service for others is real power’: Pearl Cleage on her new play at Ford’s (interview by Debbie Minter Jackson, August 23, 2023)
Ford’s Theatre announces cast and creatives for ‘Something Moving: A Meditation on Maynard’ (news story, August 3, 2023)
A look back at Ford’s ‘First Look’ festival of new plays (report by Debbie Minter Jackson, February 8, 2023)