This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 14 No. 3/4, "Changing Scenes: Theater in the South." Find more from that issue here.

"I grew up in the North, but my grandparents were all Southern — from Alabama and Tennessee," says Cleage. "Still, I feel a sense of place is less geographically specific for me than it is racially specific. As a black person living in Atlanta, you have a sense that the black population is embodied in every phase of the city's life. I'm more interested in living here than I am in a place like Seattle, where such a small percentage of the population is black. It just gives me a sense of safety and security — for my life and my writing — to be living in a majority-black environment.

"My primary audience is black. And my plays depend on people being in that setting more than they do on a Southern or Northern location. I think white writers think of themselves regionally. I think the primary identification of black writers is racial."

Hospice is a play about a mother, Alice, and her daughter, Jenny. Alice, a poet, left her daughter and her husband when Jenny was 10 years old and went to Paris to escape the prison of American racism. She has returned home dying of cancer and finds her daughter anxious for some answers as she, Jenny, awaits the birth of her first child. This section of the play, on the next page, is taken from its ending.



ALICE: I have drawn no conclusions. I have made no judgments. You are free to do whatever you please.

JENNY: At what price?

ALICE: We all have to pay for something.

JENNY: Why can't you just be my mother for once and not some world-weary, wisecracking, black caricature of a cynical expatriate?

ALICE: I am being your mother. This is what your mother is, Sister. A world-weary, wisecracking black caricature of a cynical expatriate.

JENNY: (quietly) That is not the answer.

ALICE: Don't try for answers, Sister. You don't even understand the questions.

JENNY: That's where you're wrong!


JENNY: Yes, you are. I understand all the questions. Every single one. ( a beat) Right after you left, Daddy sent me away to boarding school. He thought I needed . . . I don't know . . . stability, safety. There had been bombings, threats on his life. So he sent me off to Massachusetts where I'd be safe. I knew he was doing the best he could, so I didn't tell him how much I hated it. I thought that if he really loved me, he would know. Somehow, he would feel it and come and get me. (a beat) But he never did. (a beat) That's one of the questions, isn't it? How come people that love you can't read your mind?

ALICE: Why should they?

JENNY: So that they can love you better!

ALICE: There is no better or worse, Sister. You either do or you don't.

JENNY: You make choices.

ALICE: (outraged) Choices? Okay, Sister. Take a look! My parting gift to you is a close-up look at the end result of all those choices you're talking about with such enthusiasm. Choices? Take a good long look at me and save your reaction to this terrible truth for the labor room. You can scream about the injustice of it all in there and nobody will pay you the slightest bit of mind. All the ladies do it. They'll never know that your screaming is different. That yours isn't about the pain of your bones separating to let your daughter out. That yours is about the presence of injustice in the world! They'll never suspect a thing. And it doesn't really matter anyway. In spite of their feigned interest, nobody else really gives a damn if you do your birthing and your living and your dying well, or if you shriek and holler and cling to the nurse's arm.

JENNY: You left me!

ALICE: I did not see my future as the dedicated wife of the charismatic leader, dabbling in a little poetry, being indulged at cultural conferences and urged to read that one about the beautiful brothers and sisters in Soweto, or Watts, or Montgomery, Alabama. I couldn't just be that. The world is bigger than that. The world inside my head is bigger than that. Even now . . . I used to watch your father at rallies and in church on Sunday morning, and he'd be so strong and beautiful it was all I could do to sit still and look prim in my pew. But he was committed to "the movement!' He didn't have time any more to lay in bed with me and improvise. I'd been a wife since I was 17 and here I was almost 30, with a 10-year-old daughter, trying to convince your father to let me publish some love poems! But he couldn't. Or he wouldn't. The kind of love he had to give me now didn't allow for that. And I couldn't do without it. So I left. Not much of a story is it?

JENNY: I could have gone with you. I was old enough.

ALICE: I can tell you the day, the hour, the minute you were conceived. (a beat) I couldn't stand to look at you. (changes her tone) And I'm selfish! You said it yourself. What was I going to do in Paris with a 10-year-old child? Besides, you were always more your father's child than you ever were mine.

JENNY: I didn't have much choice, did I?

ALICE: Neither did I, Sister. Neither did I. I've spent my life trying to heal a hurt I'm not supposed to have. I got so tired of being trapped inside that tiny little black box. No air, Sister. I couldn't get any air. Everybody was mad at somebody, or about something. ( a beat) My mother spent her life catching the bus downtown to The Anis Fur Company. Sitting there in that hot little back room sewing purple silk linings in rich white ladies' sable coats. I went there with her once when I was little. There must have been 30 black women in a room smaller than this one. It was hot and dusty and close. I felt like I was smothering. (a beat) No air, Sister. No goddamn air.

JENNY: Daddy never wanted that.

ALICE: No. He wanted exactly what I was looking for. A way out of that black box. It's just that I was prepared to admit defeat and let the white folks have this particular piece of ground since they wanted it so bad. But your father was different. He was not prepared to give an inch. He was always talking about survival and I was always talking about love.