Maynard Jackson returns to the political stage in ‘Something Moving: A Meditation on Maynard’ at Ford’s Theatre

By D. R. Lewis

This article was originally published in The DC Line, here.

Standing at nearly 6 feet 4 inches, Atlanta Mayor Maynard Holbrook Jackson Jr. was a formidable presence in national Democratic politics, both in spirit and stature, for three decades. Now, in Something Moving: A Meditation on Maynard, a new play from the Ford’s Theatre Legacy Commission program, playwright Pearl Cleage draws on her experience as Jackson’s speechwriter and friend to contextualize his political legacy through the voices of the people who first sent him to City Hall in 1973.

Something Moving invites audiences into an Atlanta high-school-turned-community-arts-center, where nine local actors have gathered to rehearse a play that tells the story of Maynard Jackson 50 years after his election as the city’s first Black mayor. Under the direction of a pseudo-narrator called The Witness, the actors assume their roles as citizens remembering Jackson’s political rise — first as a candidate for United States Senate against a segregationist incumbent and eventually as a three-term mayor — and in doing so examine the social progress since Jackson first entered politics. They recount his success in harnessing the voting power of the city’s Black residents following the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and the symbol of hope he quickly became.

“Is this a history play?” asks one of the actors, who are referred to as numbered “Citizens.” “Every play is a history play,” replies The Witness. But Something Moving does not emulate many other histories by fixating on the specific dates and details of Jackson’s political career. Cleage instead focuses on the personal aspects of politics — the way that Jackson made his constituents feel, the social shift he represented, and the widespread feelings of optimism that his election inspired across the South. She adds context by detailing the pre- and post-Civil War legacy of Atlanta as the capital of a former confederate state, as seen through the experiences of its inhabitants. Among the Atlanta residents the various Citizens portray are a Black housekeeper who has worked for the same white family for 20 years, a lesbian couple who live on the site of a former Civil War battlefield, a gay man who encountered Jackson when the mayor visited the historic Sweet Gum Head drag bar, and a young man Jackson met while spending a weekend living among constituents in the Bankhead Courts public housing complex.

It is in these moments of heightened, focused storytelling that the play is at its strongest. By fully developing individual characters and the world they inhabit, Cleage draws the audience in and successfully underscores Jackson’s impact on individual lives. She is then able to effectively convey the oppressive social pressures that many of Jackson’s constituents were living under, why he represented the promise of relief and change, and the ways in which many of those pressures persist today. But, generally, those compelling moments come too late in the play, which spends a great deal of time at the outset explaining the mechanics of its storytelling, perhaps at the expense of a greater breadth of storytelling. The play falls victim to its own structure, with form overwhelming the content.

From her entrance, The Witness (a very charismatic Billie Krishawn) asserts herself as a dramatic device. Breaking the fourth wall, she immediately points out that the audience is in a theater watching a performance and that the people onstage are portraying performers themselves (clearly a nod to the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which is a phrase that is repeatedly uttered in reference to Atlanta). But in a play that insists on connection between people and wishes to underscore the power of the individual (as implied by its subtitle, A Meditation on Maynard), The Witness’ commitment to referring to her characters only as numbered citizens and to present herself as a dramatic convention are not conducive to the play’s desired impact.

While the full title promises both the momentum of a political ascent and the careful consideration of a meditation, the play struggles to commit to either. Just as it deliberately avoids digging into the particulars of Jackson’s policy accomplishments, it quickly brushes over his constituents’ criticisms, focusing instead on the symbolism of his election and the magnetism of the man. Regardless, Cleage delivers a heartfelt love letter to her friend and former boss, and the affection and respect she holds for Jackson is both obvious and touching. Audiences will walk away from this production having learned more about an overlooked political icon and feeling encouraged to consider the impact that local heroes can have on their home communities as well as the national stage.

Cleage’s play is bolstered by a strong cast and production team. Under the direction of Seema Sueko, the apt ensemble buoys the material with standout performances by Kim Bey, Alina Collins Maldonado and Constance Swain. Ivania Stack’s costumes embrace modern fashion, but also nod to 1970s trends. Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew’s lighting appropriately evokes the industrial brightness of an aging community center, but in conjunction with Shawn Duan’s projection design can turn on a dime to transport the audience to a range of settings. But Milagros Ponce de León’s set may be the most effectual element of all. Utilizing the stage’s deep apron, the angled sides of her hyper-realistic set extend toward the audience like arms reaching for a welcoming hug.

Notwithstanding its limitations, Something Moving is a fitting selection for Ford’s Theatre. It’s not just that the flags festooning Abraham Lincoln’s box serve as a seamless yet noticeable buffer between this landmark of American history and Ponce de León’s municipal set, nor that the theater sits mere blocks from the centers of our federal government in a city that, at the time of Jackson’s election, had a population that was more than 70% Black. Equally important, Ford’s Theatre serves as an educational center, welcoming countless students from across the United States each year to engage them in both American history and the performing arts. Cleage’s play unabashedly joins in those efforts. For some students, it will be the first play they see. For far more, it will likely be their first introduction to a man who dedicated himself to building a better community. Through Cleage’s curation of historical stories and voices that are not so different from those of her modern audience, Maynard Jackson’s legacy endures.

Something Moving: A Meditation on Maynard by Pearl Cleage runs through Oct. 15 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. Directed by Seema Sueko. Approximately 90 minutes and performed without an intermission. Tickets are available at or by calling the box office at 888-616-0270.

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