In Alliance Theatre artistic director Susan V. Booth’s program note, she writes about Pearl Cleage, “This woman knows how to hold an audience in the palm of her hand.” There is no better way to describe the experience of hearing and seeing Cleage’s one-act plays “Hospice” and “Pointing at the Moon” at Southwest Arts Center.
Cleage, who is the resident playwright at the Alliance Theatre, revisits “Hospice” after its premiere more than 30 years ago in New York, and has written “Pointing at the Moon” as a follow-up piece set in the present. Both of these two-person plays, onstage through April 15, are helmed by Timothy Douglas, who directed Cleage’s play “Blues for an Alabama Sky” at the Alliance in 1999, and star Terry Burrell and Tinashe Kajese-Bolden.
In “Hospice,” Alice Anderson and her daughter Jenny Anderson find themselves under the same roof for the first time in 20 years. Burrell’s prickly and fierce Alice has been diagnosed with cancer, and Kajese-Bolden’s acquiescent Jenny is preparing to have a baby while trying to launch a career as a film critic. Jenny is racing the against the clocks of death, birth and a newspaper deadline, while trying to forge some sort of bond with the mother she only knew through her books. Both actresses deliver beautiful performances portraying a relationship that is strained at best, because Alice left Jenny with her father in order to pursue poetry in Paris.
“Pointing at the Moon” meets Jenny again, 30 years into the future in present-day Atlanta after two of her dear friends have died. This time, Burrell plays Jenny, and Kajese-Bolden plays her neighbor Isabel Matthews, who is a librarian at the nearby high school. The two women are trying to forge a friendship over books, politics and Manhattans without the buffer of the other two members of their quartet. Burrell has matured Jenny into a woman who has found her mother’s audacity, but who also has her own voice. Kajese-Bolden’s performance as Isabel is sincere and a much more expected role for the actress than the younger Jenny.
Cleage’s delectable writing is a revelatory soft stroke of wisdom. Lines such as “Ordinary people often confuse courage for insanity” and “On the other side of conflagration there would still be love” hang in the air. These are quiet plays that are meant to be listened to, though music certainly has an influence over the mood. At the top of “Hospice,” Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” plays, and later Alice and Jenny have an ode to Billie Holiday. Similarly, “Pointing at the Moon” opens with Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” roaring through the theater. But the unfolding of the relationships between the two women is the crux of both stories, and it must be experienced layer by layer.
“Hospice” is less about dying and more about longing for peace. Alice and Jenny have retreated to their inherited home on Atlanta’s West End with the intention of dealing with no one but themselves, so naturally they have to deal with each other. At times, it feels like two plays happening at once, because Alice and Jenny are living in two wholly different realities. In “Pointing at the Moon,” Jenny and Isabel are grappling with the fact that the places where they once found refuge — their careers, ideas and library books — are now under siege by technology and the current political climate.
Set designer Tony Cisek creates a beautiful setting for these plays. The house in “Hospice” looks more like the framing of a house without distinct rooms. A sofa in the living room clearly serves more as a bed, and there is a desk in the corner with balled-up drafts surrounding it. The upstairs bedroom merely exists as a place to put distance between Alice and Jenny. For “Pointing at the Moon,” the empty spaces are filled in with bookshelves that create walls. The sofa is decorated with eclectic pillows, and the desk becomes a bar for friends to bond. The collaboration between Cisek, lighting designer Ken Yunker and sound designer Clay Benning is affective and makes for a compelling production.
Cleage explores the idea of a place of refuge for black women in both plays, which has become a through line in her work (“Flyin’ West,” “Blues for an Alabama Sky” and “What I Learned in Paris”). Still, as the Buddhist dharma goes, “The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon.” There’s something that feels very ephemeral about “Hospice” and “Pointing at the Moon,” like a Dear John letter to the way we once framed hope. However, even without being the moon, Cleage’s one-act plays offer light.
“Hospice” and “Pointing at the Moon”
Through April 15. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays (no 7:30 p.m. show on April 15). $20-$75; $10 for teens. Southwest Arts Center, 915 New Hope Road SW, Atlanta. 404-733-4650, alliancetheatre.org.
Bottom line: One-act plays by Pearl Cleage explore mother-daughter relationships and friendships through music, poetry and the past.