After the end of the 19th century, it was not until the 1960s, following the Civil Rights Movement and the passage of both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, that Blacks began to be elected or appointed to mayoral positions.
Following Mayor Gibson’s historic success in 1970, Blacks would break the glass ceiling in three of the largest cities in the nation, becoming the first African Americans elected as mayor in Detroit (Coleman Young), Los Angeles (Tom Bradley) and Atlanta (Maynard Jackson) – all in the same year, 1973.
Newark native Ras Jua Baraka, a product of the City’s public schools, a former high school principal and city council member, and the son of the legendary poet/activist Amiri Baraka, knows what it’s like to follow in the path of massive footsteps.
But it was Kenneth Allen Gibson, who became Newark’s first African American mayor and the first Black mayor of a major city in the Northeast in 1970. Black leadership would continue with Sharp James and Cory Booker (now U.S. senator) taking over as mayor before Baraka took the helm in 2014 as the City’s 40th mayor – reelected twice in 2018 and 2022.
Remembering Maynard – Fifty Years Later, playwright, author, activist and Atlanta poet laureate, Pearl Cleage, who was Mayor Jackson’s speechwriter and director of communications, said her own experiences of the moment were life-changing, as she had an up-close seat at a historic moment.
Now, in a timely and poignant world premiere production, which debuted September 22, as part of the ongoing Ford’s Theatre Legacy Commissions program, Cleage brings her latest play, “Something Moving: A Meditation on Maynard,” to the Ford’s Theatre stage in Washington, D.C. The play runs through October 15.
Cleage sets the play in present-day Atlanta, but soon the story travels back 50 years as citizens of the city recollect and reflect upon the significance of the once-in-a-lifetime election that turned Atlanta into a progressive example of the New South. Employing her unique theatrical voice, Cleage turns Atlanta into a full-blooded character while allowing her audience to feel what it was like to be part of a true historic moment in the Southern capital city.
“It’s a play with magic – when ordinary people did something extraordinary,” Cleage told the New Jersey Urban News. “It was an example of citizens of different racial backgrounds working in solidarity – in collective, positive action. “I wanted to share what I experienced and witnessed – the power that comes when people help people.
And while Maynard never appears in the play, the characters, through the questions they ask one another, transform the story. My hope is that the audience will find hope and inspiration after viewing this production.
Maynard was elected 50 years ago because he walked the streets of Atlanta. He talked to people – all kinds of people – race, education, and economic status, notwithstanding. We can do the same in building what America needs today: a just community,” Cleage said.
The play is directed by Seema Sueko who previously directed “Something Moving: A Meditation on Maynard” for The Ford’s Theatre Legacy Commissions: A First Look in January 2023. Sueko agreed with Cleage, saying that the play exemplifies the magic of everyday people.
“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.,” Sueko said. “I hope that bearing witness to this magic will ignite joyful action in the hearts of our audience.”
Cleage had more to say about what motivated her to examine Maynard’s unprecedented rise to power. “I wanted to write a play that allowed me to create characters that would represent all the different constituencies that came together to elect Maynard our mayor,” she said. “I wanted to ask myself (and my audience) what makes a great leader? I wanted to explore what we as citizens owe those leaders once we identify them.
“In these turbulent times when there is so much distrust of politicians and politics, I wanted to look back at a moment when we trusted the process and had great hopes invested in the outcome of every election,” Cleage said.
The cast of DMV locals includes Billie Krishawn, Kim Bey, Doug Brown, Derek Garza, Shubhangi Kuchibhotla, Alina Collins Maldonado, Susan Rome, Shaquille Stewart, Tom Story and Constance Swain.
A New Jersey Urban News Exclusive by D. Kevin McNeir, SeniorWriter/Columnist, New Jersey Urban News
For more information on Ford’s Theatre, the Ford’s Theatre Society, or tickets, visit www.fords.org.