Inspired by her middle school grandson’s boredom and frustration with watching live theatre, Atlanta playwright, novelist and civil rights activist Pearl Cleage decided that it was about time that she wrote a play that would change his mind. Thus, Cleage is giving birth to her latest brainchild entitled “Tell Me My Dream,” a play comparing the lives of prepubescent teens in Atlanta 1910 to Atlanta 2015. The play focuses on a time during Atlanta 1910 where the city had recently recovered from very violent race riots in 1906, and in an effort to heal the city, the African-American Rev. Henry Hughes Proctor decided that it would be a very good idea to orchestrate the first integrated music festival ever held in Atlanta. In our story, he allows some likely — and also some unlikely — teens to help him accomplish this monumental feat.
I especially appreciate the playwright’s precautionary measures in surveying actual middle school aged teens when it came to writing the script for her play. It shows the playwright’s genuine interest in appealing to middle school teens. According to Cleage, her findings revealed that middle school teens require fast-paced and lively scenes with short dialogue in order to hold their interest, and in effect, our playwright cuts down some of the monologues. The play’s modern-day teens were fully equipped with earphones, smart gadgets broadcasting ridiculously funny videos and the like, along with two nice pairs of jeans and sneakers as part of their 2015 ensemble. On one hand, stereotypes could have just as well swallowed up our modern day characters in shadows to the point where we could have been simply watching animated caricatures. I give Ms. Cleage huge kudos for communicating with actual teens and listening to their voices to create these characters, which is something that can be lacking with some of our elders of the Baby Boomer generation.
Our story begins with a couple of teenage boys — Wallace, a black boy (portrayed by Stephen Ruffin), and Jeremy, a white boy (played by Jeremy Parker Hobbs) — who share a love for music and sports and a hatred for history and their history teacher. Obviously, in order to keep from being withdrawn from their precious sports activities, they must find a way to pull up their grades in their history class. Their teacher has given them to opportunity to do just that: they, along with the rest of the class, must attend and attentively watch the play “Tell Me My Dream” by Pearl Cleage and write a report on the historic value of the play. The boys’ interest in history is not the least bit piqued until Mary — a headstrong, wise-beyond-her-years African-American girl — magically appears in the form of time travel from the land of 1910 Atlanta to Atlanta 2015. And who wouldn’t be interested in history if one got the chance to actually go back in time! So, I’m not surprised by this approach because honestly, it is cute and fun to look back on.
This play was intended to appeal to the audiences of middle school teens to create an interest in attending plays and enjoying history. Thus, these stereotypes were not created to pick on, tease, generalize or trivialize the individuality and personalities of young teens, but to serve as a standard or a basis of relatability for all young teens to perhaps find a way to bond with these characters. Every teenager has a class that they do not like. There is almost always an ultimatum that the teen must navigate in order to remain even remotely engaged in the class. It happens rather often. Plenty of teens enjoy sports, music and silly videos. These are things that all of us teens can relate to. The play just happens to deliver it to us in a more comical and exaggerated way, which is no doubt entertaining. It gives us a chance to laugh at ourselves. I also appreciated the actors’ portrayal of the teens, most especially the occasional voice crack and squeak here and there, along with the witty banter.
The play poses some significant questions, like the privileges we modern black teens take for granted. Privileges the early 20th century black kids portrayed in the play did not have, including having the freedom to use the same utilities as their white counterparts, such as schools, theaters, restaurants, bathrooms and even water fountains. The fight for equality was literal. The play touches on some important aspects of progress that we as black kids today have been able to witness and be a part of. We have had the opportunity to see the first black president elected (and reelected!). We have famous black scientists, artists, musicians, doctors and athletes that we can see as soon as we turn on our televisions. The play also noted the challenges we still face, including the recent killings of unarmed black teens such as Trayvon Martin.
“Tell Me My Dream” teaches us that people today are not so different from how people were back in 1910. Perhaps if we heed this message and take immediate and appropriate action, we can live the dream that our people were so eager to tell them about.