Fifty years ago in 1973, Maynard Jackson became the first Black mayor of the city of Atlanta, Georgia. He was the first Black to become a mayor of a major Southern city. It began a new era for equal rights for African-Americans. Some of us are old enough to remember that time. Jackson’s election also became decisive in changing the political picture in Atlanta and, as of the last national election, changing the arc of Georgia politics for a long while.
What could be a better way to commemorate this election than a production of a play about Mayor Jackson at Ford’s Theatre in Washington? “Something Moving: A Meditation on Maynard” by Pearl Cleage will be opening there on September 22, 2023.
Cleage herself was a speech writer for Jackson during that election, but don’t expect to see a biographical play about the mayor. It is Atlanta and its people that are the main characters. It was a time when people of all races joined together to make a change. It was an end to the reign of segregation personified by Lester Maddox who served as governor from 1967-71.
I had a chance to interview the renowned director, Seema Sueko, who will be leading a cast that includes Billie Krishawn, Kim Bey, Constance Swain, Doug Brown, Shaquille Stewart, Susan Rome, Tom Story, Alina Collins Maldonado, Shubhangi Kuchibhotla, and Derek Garza.
Seema Sueko grew up in Honolulu with a Pakistani father and a third generation Kona-Japanese-American mother. She received her master’s degree in International Relations from the University of Chicago. Between 2004 and 2020, Seema served as Deputy Artistic Director of Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., Associate Artistic Director of The Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, California, and was the Co-Founder and Executive Artistic Director at Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company in San Diego. Currently, she is studying Solidarity Economy and exploring ways to make theater that maximize social profit. She received the TCG Alan Schneider Director Award in 2022 and balances work as a freelance theater artist and consultant with caregiving for her parents. She is a co-curator with DNAWORKS as well as an “Immortal” with Kaimera Productions. She is adapting the novel, “Song of the Exile,” by Hawaiian writer Kiana Davenport, into a play with jazz music. Seema volunteers as board president of Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation (SDCF) and is a member of the executive board of the union, SDC. She believes that in addition to having one’s basic needs met, art, exercise, and love are daily essentials. She has many directorial credits including “Silent Sky” at Ford’s Theatre in 2020.
The play “Something Moving: A Meditation on Maynard” is about the former Mayor of Atlanta, Georgia, Maynard Jackson. Growing up in Hawaiʻi, were you aware of the significance of Jackson’s election in 1973? If not, did you have to research Jackson and his times?
I was one year old when Maynard Jackson was first elected Mayor of Atlanta. I was unaware both of the election and its significance during my childhood in Hawaiʻi. It was through working on this play that I learned these things from Pearl Cleage, through research, and by talking to others. When Kiana Davenport, a Hawaiian novelist with whom I am working on another project, learned that I was directing this play, she shared what an impact Mayor Jackson’s election had on her living in Hawaiʻi as an adult in 1973. She recalled a sense of newfound hope.
What do you think present day audiences will learn from seeing this play?
“Something Moving” is a play with magic. Not the abracadabra kind of magic, but the alchemy of ordinary people doing an extraordinary thing through the election of Maynard Holbrook Jackson, Jr. I hope that bearing witness to this magic will ignite joyful action in the hearts of our audience.
Many think that “theatre” is not only the stage, the actors, the set, etc. but the audience and the theatre itself. What that in mind, did the venue, Ford’s Theatre where Lincoln was shot, have any effect on your direction of the play?
Absolutely. Directing this play at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. is naturally different from directing it in Atlanta or Honolulu. Any venue impacts the physical design of a production and every community impacts how the words and activities on stage live and are received. Specifically in the case of Ford’s, the significance of Lincoln’s legacy side-by-side with Mayor Jackson’s legacy is deep and, indeed, the seed for this play was planted by the Ford Theatre Legacy Commissions program.
Have you been able to work collaboratively with the playwright, Pearl Cleage, on this production? If so, how?
Yes. Pearl Cleage is a generous and compassionate collaborator. We first met on Zoom and then I made a trip to Atlanta where she toured me around and grounded me in geographic history. We watched documentaries together and she shared more details about her time working with Maynard Jackson. When we did the workshop earlier this year, she was with us every step of the way, illuminating the ideas and moments, adjusting and editing text, listening to and offering feedback. She is wise and I have learned so much from her—not just about the play, but about humanity. She is a role model, and it is an honor to work with her.
I see you are involved with theatre as part of the social structure. How do you think theatre could better serve society in general and the local communities where there are located specifically?
The answers to this will be bespoke for each community. I’ve seen artists and theater institutions make significant positive and lasting impact in their communities when first they build relationships, listen and understand needs and desires of the many communities they intersect with, share openly their own goals, and allow space for mutual transformation.
“Something Moving: A Meditation on Maynard” by Pearl Cleage runs September 22 – October 15, 2023 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 Tenth Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20004. For more information and tickets, go online. (Free First Preview on 9/22; Generation Abe Night for ages 21-40 on 10/5; ASL-interpreted performance on 10/12; audio described performances on 10/11 and 10/14). For more information on Seema Sueko go to her website.