Pearl Cleage

Collision 2021: In Conversation with Pearl Cleage {Part 2}

Twenty years ago, Susan Booth wanted to create a summer program for metro-Atlanta teens that would use a classic theatre text as a catalyst for the creation of brand-new work, devised by the participants in collaboration with founding director, Rosemary Newcott, stage manager/sound designer, Rodney Williams, and a revolving roster of playwrights. In anticipation of the unexpected things that happen when artists and ideas collide, she named it The Collision Project.

Ten years later, Chris Moses, invited me to become one of those playwrights. At the end of this piece, I’ve included a recently discovered 2011 email that details my response to that invitation, but suffice it to say, I reluctantly agreed. I had no experience working with high school students. Plus, I couldn’t get a satisfactory answer from anybody about what the Collision process was, exactly. As a playwright, I wanted parameters, guidelines, rules of the road, but none of those things seemed to be forthcoming from my soon to be collaborators who smiled and reassured me everything would be fine.

In desperation, with my first Collision only a few weeks away, I went back to Rodney in desperation. “Well, it’s kind of like jazz,” he said. “We all get in a room together and improvise.”

Although at the time that only added to my terror, he was right. What was supposed to be a one-time gig so moved me, so reassured and revitalized and energized me that as soon as our final performance was over, I immediately began trying to figure out how to ask Chris Moses if I could do it just one more time. I am so grateful that he said yes. Patrick McColery, our new director, had shared that first Collision summer with me and he was hooked, too. From that day to this, Patrick and I have walked every step of our Collision journey together, and every summer, we join Rodney and David Kote, our musical director, in putting a small tribe together and seeing where the spirit leads us.

In the last ten years, we’ve explored plays, novels, films, speeches and our country’s founding documents. In the process, we’ve had the blessing of listening to the dreams and visions of the next generation of theatre makers; world changing young citizen artists, who amaze and exhaust and transform us every single time.

We can hardly believe that this is our 20th anniversary. Sustained by a generous endowment from Vicki and Howard Palefsky, Susan Booth’s dreams of a program that would challenge and change Atlanta teens has now “graduated” over 400 young people who have seen their power manifested and magnified by their Collision experiences in a way that they usually can’t describe any better than we can, even after all these years. But we keep trying.

For our 20th Anniversary summer, we have chosen our first all musical text, Marvin Gaye’s 1971 masterpiece, “What’s Going On?” On the occasion of its 50th anniversary this year, Rolling Stone Magazine named it the best album of all time. Wherever you would rank it among your personal favorites, the album has undeniable culture and artistic significance and it lends itself to a better understanding of context, one of the hallmarks of the Collision method. One of the things we do every summer is offer our participants an approach to thinking. We don’t tell them what to think. We show them a way of thinking that hopefully enlarges their understanding of context and gives them a greater appreciation of the interconnectedness of ideas in the process of creative expression.

1971 was a year of great upheaval and confusion in America. There are so many ways to consider that American moment through the lens of Marvin’s music. I picture the music and the lyrics of the “What’s Going On?” album as the shining center of a wagon wheel (like the ones on country singer/songwriter Porter Wagoner’s best costumes!) The spokes of that wheel would radiate out as we explore some of the ideas that Marvin is singing about by providing relevant context.

So, in celebration of our 20th year, we would like to invite you to take this creative journey of ideas with us, from these early February moments of discovery, through the Spring interview process where we will find our new tribe, to the three weeks in July when they become an ensemble, culminating in two performances of a wholly original work. I invite you to be a part of the magic that happens every summer when we surrender to the process and improvise as if our lives depended on it. Because they do!

Here are the main spokes I’m exploring to get ready for this summer. And don’t worry! There will not be a pop quiz at the end of the process for you or for our participants! Everybody is free to roam around at will! I guarantee that anywhere you land you will find something interesting.

Motown: A Cultural Force

  • “What’s Going On?” The 1971 album by Marvin Gaye will be our basic text. Even the most cursory listen will reveal the artistry and political passion of this masterwork.
  • “Hitsville: The Making of Motown.” A Showtime documentary with an amazing sequence of Martin Gaye actually producing each track of the title song. We also learn how reluctant Motown founder Berry Gordy was to release such political music and why.
  • Where Did Our Love Go? by Nelson George. The book offers a cultural history of Motown by music critic Nelson George and more information about Martin Gaye and other Motown artists as well as the times in which they lived. It’s a perfect companion piece to “Hitsville.”

The Vietnam War

  • “Dear America: Letters from Vietnam.” A heartbreaking documentary from HBO with a companion volume of actual letters home from soldiers on the front lines in Vietnam. The average age of the soldiers is 19, not much older than our Collisioners. Marvin Gaye’s brother’s experiences in Vietnam prompted him to write “What’s Going On?” The letters in this documentary could have been his letters home.
  • Bloods, a wonderful oral history by Wallace Terry that views the Vietnam War through the eyes of the black soldiers who called themselves “Bloods.” Marvin must have heard stories like these from his brother.
  • “Vietnam: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, produced for PBS. For those who want to dig deeper, this multi-part documentary fully explores the history, the war and the aftermath.
  • “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf,” by Ntozake Shange. This groundbreaking choreopoem introduces the character of Beau Willie, a Vietnam veteran who returns home brutalized by war and consumed by rage. When he turns that rage on his wife and children, there are tragic consequences. In “Save the Children,” Marvin Gaye sings of the plight of black children.

Racial Injustice/Inner City America

  • “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” written and performed by Gil Scott-Heron who turned an unblinking eye on racial injustice and the way it manifests in urban America. Those same concerns resulted in Marvin’s “Inner City Blues.”
  • “The Last Poets,” an album written and performed by The Last Poets. This jazz influenced spoken word classic explores the same urban landscape that Marvin was writing and singing about.
  • “The Bottle,” written and performed by Gil Scott-Heron, this song like Marvin’s “Flyin’ High,” looks at the problem of drug and alcohol abuse in urban America.

Environment/Climate Change

  • “An Inconvenient Truth, Parts One and Two.” Al Gore’s groundbreaking documentaries are a crucial introduction to the crisis of climate change. An awareness of our threatened environment led Marvin to write “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology).”
  • Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson was published in 1962 and warned of the danger presented by the use of pesticides.
  • “I Am Greta,” a documentary about activist Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future movement brings the environmental crisis right into the present day.
  • “The Hill We Climb,” 2021 Inaugural poem by Amanda Gorman shows the continuing influence of politically conscious young artists on American culture.

That is just some of what we will be exploring this summer through the lens of Marvin Gaye’s musical masterpiece. As you can see, we take our improvising seriously!

Last Spring when we were first considering using “What’s Going On?” as our text, I stepped out on the front porch with my husband one rainy night and as we stood there enjoying the sound of the rain and an occasional low rumble of thunder, we heard music coming through my neighbor’s open windows. It was that unmistakable horn at the opening of the title song of the album and it was so perfectly beautiful and beautifully perfect that I turned to my husband and said, “That’s what we’re using for Collision this summer.” And he just nodded because, like me, he knows a sign when he hears one. Especially on a rainy Atlanta evening when there’s music in the air.

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