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New play extols Atlanta’s Maynard Jackson, but lacks his inspiration

“Something Moving: A Meditation on Maynard” was commissioned by Ford’s Theatre but it just as well could have originated with the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. A 100-minute shout-out to the election and administration of three-time Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson, this report-card-as-a-play gives Jackson straight A’s without offering a persuasive rationale for issuing it.

Jackson was the first Black mayor of Atlanta — referred to endlessly by the cast of 10 as “our town,” a not so subtle allusion to Thornton Wilder’s canonical work. Nothing about the somnolent “Something Moving” resembles “Our Town,” though, except maybe the format: a group of ordinary Atlantans, identified simply as Citizens 1 through 9, contributing observations about a city leader first elected in 1973.

Playwright Pearl Cleage orchestrates the proceedings through an awkward structure that has nine characters enter as actors in a present-day rehearsal room. A 10th character, called “The Witness” and portrayed by Billie Krishawn, addresses the Ford’s audience directly, as she sets up a projector with a carousel of slides. The Witness explains that as it is the 50th anniversary of Jackson’s first electoral victory, the actors will read notes from residents recalling those days. Photos of Jackson and city landmarks occasionally pop up on a screen on an auditorium set by Milagros Ponce de León.

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“Are we going to read these random letters from random people and call it a show?” asks Citizen 6, played by Tom Story. Yes, apparently, that is the show, Citizen 6. The Witness patiently schools us, in mandatory-assembly style, in the lesson of the day: “The collective voice is the only true history,” she says.

Jackson’s ascendance was of course noteworthy: He rose to prominence on the heels of the civil rights movement, when other Black politicians had already become mayors of major American cities. As “Something Moving” points out, they included Carl Stokes in Cleveland, Coleman A. Young in Detroit, Tom Brady in Los Angeles and Walter E. Washington in D.C. What Jackson’s mayoralty symbolized — and the sense of self-esteem he engendered in Atlanta’s Black community — is important, too. What the play doesn’t adequately address, however, is what about Jackson in particular merits this unabashed level of hagiography.

“He was the embodiment of something good about our town,” a citizen recounts. “He couldn’t fix everything as fast as we wanted him to, but he was working on it!” declares another. During one rousing speech, the play also reports, “The Atlanta World said our mayor was interrupted by applause 25 times!”

Civic pride is no minor virtue. But 100 minutes of boosterism is a lot to sit through, particularly as the city in question is more than 600 miles from the city in which the play is receiving its world premiere. Maybe it’s better programmed around a celebratory occasion in Atlanta? The work is the first to be produced through Ford’s Theatre’s Legacy Commissions, an initiative for playwrights of color. The worthiness of such an effort is not a matter of debate.

Still, a play devoid of drama or potent investigation is just a PowerPoint presentation with costumes. Director Seema Sueko leads an appealing, diverse cast — including Doug Brown, Susan Rome, Kim Bey, Constance Swain, Derek Garza, Shubhangi Kuchibhotla, Alina Collins Maldonado and Shaquille Stewart — in the waltz through Jackson’s Wikipedia entry. The dance, though, needs more incisive accompaniment.

Something Moving: A Meditation on Maynard, by Pearl Cleage. Directed by Seema Sueko. Set, Milagros Ponce de León; costumes, Ivania Stack; lighting, Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew; sound, André J. Pluess; projections, Shawn Duan. About 100 minutes. Through Oct. 15 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW.

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