The play tells the triumphs and flaws of the man who transformed Atlanta into the “new South.”
Say the name “Maynard Jackson” to someone and unless they’re of a certain age or have ties to the city of Atlanta, chances are you’ll be met with blank stares or vague recollections: “Isn’t there an airport named for him?”
A generation before Barack Obama became the country’s first Black president, another young, charismatic African-American politician was making history. Fifty years ago in 1973, Maynard Jackson became the first Black mayor of the city of Atlanta. In fact, he was the first Black person to become a mayor of any major Southern city. He was only 35. His election was a seismic shift in the status quo, changing the political picture in Atlanta and signaling a new era of hope for African Americans.
Jackson transformed Atlanta into a symbol of the “new South” by expanding opportunities for minority businesses and is credited as one of the fathers of the Atlanta political structure many know today. But more than a decade after his death, Jackson’s life and legacy remain relatively unknown.
In honor of the 50th anniversary of Jackson’s historic win, the world premiere of “Something Moving: A Meditation on Maynard” at Ford’s Theatre aims to change that. Award-winning playwright Pearl Cleage is uniquely qualified to tell his story; she was Jackson’s speechwriter and worked on his campaign.
But don’t expect a typical biopic.
Hinting at the scope of his legacy and how much he changed the political game in Atlanta, the play starts with a recorded welcome from Stacey Abrams, who, in the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election, became the first African-American female major-party nominee for governor.
Cleage sets the play in present-day Atlanta with nine actors gathering for a rehearsal in a former high school auditorium. “Something Moving” then travels back 50 years as the cast plays the role of fictional citizens sharing stories and reflecting on what Jackson’s election meant to them and the city of Atlanta. And without the use of props or staging, Cleage makes the city its own character. Her words bring the city of Atlanta to life, allowing the audience to feel the emotions and excitement of what it was like to live in Georgia’s capital city during this pivotal moment.
Other than photos projected on the wall, Jackson does not show up as a character in the play. Standing close to 6-foot-4, he was a giant of a man but, more importantly, the story reflects the enduring influence of the formidable figure. Unlike many retrospectives, “Something Moving” doesn’t shy away from covering the low points in his tenure, including the 1977 sanitation strike and the Atlanta child murders.
This is not solely a “Black story,” however. The cast represents diverse constituencies, including Black, white, Indigenous, Jewish, Latina and LGBTQIA+ to illustrate the extent of Jackson’s appeal and impact.
In an emotional scene, one of the characters in the role of a gay man recounts the time when Jackson visited a gay bar as part of a campaign to drum up support and how he later went on to proclaim Gay Pride Day. In the 1970s. In the South.
Under the direction of Seema Sueko, “Something Moving” is as moving as it is informative. It creates an authentic impression of this great man, communicating his flaws as well as his accomplishments, and allows the audience to more fully understand and appreciate what he did, particularly during such racially volatile times in the Southern states.
And at a time when everything feels divisive, reflecting back on this optimistic moment in the past when people actually had faith in politics ignites hope that a better future is possible.
“Something Moving: A Meditation on Maynard” is at Ford’s Theatre through October 15. Tickets start at $26. For more information, visit the theatre’s website here.
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