Back in 1972, celebrated author and playwright Pearl Cleage, C’71, wrote a play called “The Sale,” that foreshadowed the themes she would develop in the works she produced during the next 40 years. Set in the future, “The Sale,” was about “a big White company that needed to replace its Black employee,” describes Cleage, a theater major while at Spelman.  “So they came to The Negro Store to find someone suitable to replace the one Negro they had who had left.”

In addition to its cutting-edge theme, “The Sale” featured the budding talents of Cleage’s classmate Latanya Richardson Jackson, C’71, and Samuel L. Jackson, a student at Morehouse College who would eventually become Richardson’s husband, as well as a renowned Oscar-nominated actor.  Both Spelman honorary degree recipients, Richardson Jackson and Cleage have often crossed paths in their careers and have gone on to success by winning numerous accolades for their artistic endeavors.

Cleage was recently named one of 14 recipients of a three-year artist residency award from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The grant, which includes a salary and benefits, will allow her to continue the work she began several years ago as the Artist-in-Dialogue at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, where Richardson Jackson portrayed the Lady in Red in Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf” in 1980.

At the Alliance, Cleage has produced several of her plays as well as performances by the Collision Project, which connects high school students to theater. Her work centers on being an advocate and conductor of community dialogue and engagement.

“I will also be able to continue encouraging people who might not feel that the Alliance is our theater. It is our theater, a place that all of us can claim,” said Cleage, who is working on a new play about the origins of the Atlanta Music Festival, which began as the Atlanta Colored Music Festival. In protest about not being allowed to attend the Metropolitan Opera’s Atlanta performance in 1909, the African-American members of First Congregational Church began their own festival.

“They invited their friends in the White community who knew that [discrimination] was wrong. This was the first time there was an integrated audience for a cultural event in Atlanta,” said Cleage, who will be working with  Dwight Andrews, a minister of the First Congregational Church. Andrews has scored productions by theatrical impresario Kenny Leon.

Leon’s company True Colors Theatre is currently producing August Wilson’s play, “Two Trains Running,” which is being directed by Richardson Jackson. With the production being staged at the Southwest Arts Center in Atlanta, Richardson Jackson was able to engage seven Spelman women into the Wilson’s seventh play in a 10-part series that examines African-American life in the 1960s.

“The cast is like a family, and I am connected to my Spelman sisters,” said the Atlanta native, who made her Broadway debut in 2009 portraying Bertha Holly in Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” “When Pauletta Washington – Denzel’s wife, who is the only woman in the play – said ‘I’m going to need support,’ I told her we’ll be in Atlanta. Spelman is all the help that we need.”

Zuri Adele, C’2012, is Washington’s understudy. Jillian Macklin, C’2012 is an assistant, Marva Harris, C’99 is on wardrobe, and KaTerri Kelly, C’2010, is a production assistant. Other Spelman women who are a part of the production are Britny Horton, C’2014, Brittany Inge, C’2011, and Davida Campbell, C’2011.

Richardson –Jackson’s mentoring spirit can be traced to the beginnings of her career during her time at Spelman – before she was even enrolled as a student.

“I had been part of the children’s theater, and I was taken to Spelman by my high school teacher Georgia Allen, a great actress in the Atlanta area,” said the veteran stage and screen actress, whose long list of roles include those in the films “Malcolm X” and “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.”  “I was fortunate and blessed enough to have a great advocate and teacher in Dr. Baldwin W. Burroughs, who was the head of the drama department at Spelman. Dr. James Butcher and Dr. Carlson Mollette and his wife Barbara were influential as well.

“They expected a lot of us and allowed us to do a number of things both on stage and behind the scenes…, and we did a variety of plays, both Black and White. I got a chance to do “MacBeth” with Diana Sands. I won a Shakespeare award when I was at Spelman. Spelman has a history of having great theatrical productions, and they had a summer theater so it was year-round. I was better prepared than most.”

Cleage shares a similar reverence of her time at Spelman. “It was such a wonderful and practical experience of doing and seeing the plays we’d written up on their feet. They were so focused on preparing us to be actively involved in American theater. They were rigorous,” she remembers. “I never found myself in a situation where I thought I was not ready because I was always ready.”

And she has a few words of advice to current Spelman drama majors about how to prepare for a life in the theater: “Work as hard as you possibly can to learn everything they are trying to teach you. Be passionate about what you do. And don’t make any debts,” she said. “In this world, you have to be able to live a life that allows you to be able to move when an opportunity presents itself. You don’t want to be encumbered by debt. Think about your finances as much as you think about your artistry.”

To get a taste of the talent in Spelman’s drama and dance department, make sure to see “Mash Up !” Feb. 14-17, 2013. Directed by instructor Kenneth Green, the work features student-actors paired with industry professionals to create an unforgettable evening of scenes, ranging from American classics to Shakespeare. For more information, visit the drama and dance events page.