Singer-Playwright Nnenna Freelon

The jazz vocalist-actress-composer-playwright and six-time Grammy nominee discusses her stage production, “The Clothesline Muse,” which is currently touring the country.

Nnenna Freelon can really do it all. The six-time Grammy nominated jazz singer has earned the reputation as one of the most compelling performers in the business. She learned from the greats, having toured with the likes of Ray Charles, Ellis Marsalis, Al Jarreau, George Benson, and others. In 2014, Nnenna starred in the critically acclaimed show “Georgia on My Mind: Celebrating the Music of Ray Charles” at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. Nnenna is showcasing the whole spectrum of her talents in her latest project as the writer, composer and producer of the original theatrical presentation of "The Clothesline Muse," a work of dance, music, spoken word and vibrant art. She is also one of the stars of the musical theater piece.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Delighted to have jazz vocalist, actress, composer, playwright and six-time Grammy nominee Nnenna Freelon on this program for the very first time. She’s written, composed and arranged a new play called “The Clothesline Muse” currently touring the country. Let’s take a look at a clip of “The Clothesline Muse” before we start our conversation.

[Clip]

Tavis: I’m honored to have you on this program.

Nnenna Freelon: What a blessing. I’m happy to be here.

Tavis: Glad to have you. I wrote this down ’cause I want to get this right. I think it’s a good place to start our conversation. This is a quote from you.

You said you want the play to encourage conversations between the generations where you’re hoping that people go to their grandparents and say, “What was life like in 1920?” Why do you think the play, or hope the play, will generate that kind of conversation?

Freelon: I think the 21st century has sort of changed communication in some ways, but it’s made us more isolated. The art of conversation is a dying art because we’re so plugged into our own individual story. But we need to know something about what grandma went through. We need to understand how she got over.

And there’s no Grammy award, there’s no SAG award for raising good kids, you know, so we need to understand some of the things that were learned at the clothesline. How do you deal with young men? How do young women comport themselves? These were all “Honey, hush” moments that are being lost now.

Tavis: I like that. “Honey, hush.” [laugh] I love it, Nnenna.

Freelon: You know, so we need those and they’re not easily translatable to an online culture. You got to sit down with somebody with a cup of tea and talk about how they got over, you know.

Tavis: I guess what I’m struck by is, one, you’re right about the fact that these conversations don’t happen. But I’m trying to drill down in my own mind on why these conversations don’t happen.

And one of the reasons is, when you’re a grandmother at 32, it’s kind of hard to have a clothesline conversation ’cause you didn’t see the clothesline at 32 and your grandbaby certainly isn’t seeing the clothesline.

Freelon: True.

Tavis: I’m just trying to figure out what’s happened inside of our community that obstructs those conversations from happening. Does that make sense?

Freelon: Absolutely. You cast a net far back enough until you find someone whose feet are on that ground. You know, if your grandmother is a young grandmother, then cast the net back to her mother.

Somewhere we lost our way. Somewhere we got a little out of phase. And there are northern clothesline stories, there are southern clothesline stories, and the clothesline is a metaphor for those kinds of conversations.

Now you can post things online just like you can post things on a clothesline. You knew who lived in the house, you knew whether there were children, whether there was a man. You knew the ages, you knew whether the company was coming because the good tablecloth came out.

So there are connections between the online culture and the clothesline culture, but the clothesline is an old piece of technology. Let’s face it. And we did not want children to think, well, that’s an antiquated, obsolete kind of technology. What does it have to do with me? It has everything to do with you.

Any time you reject the notion that the sacrifices made on your behalf mean nothing, Martin Luther King struggles, the struggles of the women in our play in 1881, those sisters who shut Atlanta down by forming a washerwoman’s society, a labor union. This is 1881, some 20 years after slavery.

These sisters wrote a letter to the mayor of Atlanta, James English, and said we’re not washing any more. But they were totally–Atlanta was totally dependent on them for the washing of clothes at that time. So they somehow had the political savvy and sense of agency that, well, freedom means free. Why shouldn’t we get $1 for 12 pounds of laundry?

Tavis: I was about to ask that. What were they getting paid back then? $1?

Freelon: Whatever. A bag of beans, maybe something, maybe not, you know. So Dr. Tera Hunter at Princeton helped bring that piece of real history into the play and sort of changed the view of the washerwoman from a subservient, low being to someone who really understood her own sense of power. The washerwoman, she was really pretty something.

Tavis: To what extent do you think–I might follow your theme–to what extent do you think that there are so many in our country, particularly in the African American community, who even in the era of Barack Obama don’t understand the power, to use your word, that they do have, the agency that they do have?

Freelon: You can’t understand your power unless you have to go back and look where it came from because it is not by your own strength. You know, we didn’t get here by ourselves. We got here on the shoulders of other people.

I believe personally on a spiritual level that those sleepless nights we’re having with our dressed-up selves and our privileged selves are because we have not brought into balance that thank-you for those who have made the way for us.

And it’s not a lack of–you know, some people don’t want to go back there because it seems like we’re a defeated people, that we are people who struggled and never got our fair share. It’s a sad thing if you think about it in that way.

But the fact that we’re even able to have this conversation right now, there are many to thank for this moment. And to me, it’s empowering. It’s not a less-than moment.

Tavis: I’m glad you said that. I only raise this because you went there. Otherwise, I wouldn’t raise it. But I have a couple of books coming out over the next couple of years and one of them I just turned the manuscript in won’t be out until 2016. It’s a book called “Gratitude” and you see why I raised that.

I raised that because I wondered the extent to which our society has suffered, our society writ large has and is suffering. And more specifically, the African American community, to your point, is suffering because we have just become a generation of people who lack gratitude.

Freelon: Well, in order to be grateful, you have to take a good hard look. Washing clothes by hand was no joke. Go down to the river, carry the buckets of water, build a fire, iron wash pot, make your own soap, maybe get paid, maybe not get paid, using those efforts to put food on the table. I mean, that’s no joke.

Now we have washing machines and we have dryers, but someone washed or someone took care of someone else’s children so that we could enjoy the life that we have now. We have to–karmically, we have to say thank you. It’s not an option, you know.

So I do think gratitude is a lovely place to start because once you really are thankful, a whole lot of other things fall into place all by themselves once you’re grateful.

Tavis: If so much stuff has been lost, we have to go back. I take your point. But how do you go about making those connections?

Freelon: I think you start with the art of conversation. What was it like for you, grandma? What was it like for you, grandpa? What games did you play? I mean, start in a safe place, you know, and start having those conversations and you will have moments of wonder. Really? You had to walk to school? Really? Your school was only for colored people?

When I tell young children that there used to be colored–in my character–there were colored water fountains and white water fountains, when we do the talkbacks afterwards, they say, “Was that really true, Ms. Freelon? Was that really true?” “Yes. Strange, isn’t it? Odd, isn’t it? Wrong, isn’t it?”

Yeah, it sounds wrong ’cause it was wrong you know [laugh]. But it’s new news for them. It’s only history written on a page, flat, two-dimensional. It’s not real.

But when the actor acts out these moments, I think it adds another element of “and this really, really happened.” These were the laws of the land at that time. You have to understand that from your tippy toes to the top of your head so that it will not be repeated.

Tavis: I’ve always admired this about our Jewish brothers and sisters and this devotion to this notion of never again. Never again, never again, never again. So they passed that on.

I’m curious as to what your greatest fear is for what happens to our community long-term if we don’t find a way to do what this play, “The Clothesline Muse”, is suggesting must be done.

Freelon: We need safe places to talk about things that are hard. And we can’t expect anyone else to do that for us. If our children don’t understand their history, that’s my fault, that’s your fault, that’s parents’ fault.

That’s a responsibility of passing down those values, so we can’t look outside of ourselves. We must make these changes. They don’t cost money, no bills have to be passed, you know. No permission has to be asked. We just have to do it.

And I’m not talking about just, as you said, the history writ large. I’m talking about family history, about grandma so-and-so who walked from Oklahoma to–you know, I’m talking about things that happened within our own families that deserve to be celebrated and these things we can take as energy to do what we need to do in our daily lives as inspiration.

Tavis: I think that some people, Nnenna, are put off by what they perceive to be a pain in the past that they don’t want to have to navigate again.

Freelon: Pleasure? Pain? It’s all in there if you look for it because somehow the fact that we’re sitting here says we’ve survived, you know. Somehow we made it.

Tavis: How’s the play doing? I know it’s traveling the country. How are people responding to it?

Freelon: It’s fabulous. Very, very positively, very positively. We have dates in Wilmington, North Carolina. We have dates in Dallas. We have dates in Lubbock, Texas. And we’re pushing forward for a tour in 2016 where we hit the entire northeast, Boston, Rhode Island.

You know, I really feel that this play offers a safe place for all the stories. Miss Ann has a story. Miss Ann who hired the Black washerwoman, her story belongs on the line too. There’s a Chinese laundry story. There’s an Irish laundry story.

It all belongs on the line. We don’t tell all those stories. I believe the Black American story is the quintessential story. It’s fine to start there, but it does open the door for dialog with other stories.

Tavis: I sense with this project, as I do everything you do, that this is a passion project for you.

Freelon: Oh, yes. It is my baby. It’s my baby. I jumped from the frying pan into the fire. As if running a jazz business and running a trio all over the world wasn’t enough, but it’s wonderful. I’m so pleased.

Tavis: That’s why we love you because you are a renaissance woman [laugh]. Nnenna Freelon does it all and does it all so well. The play is called “The Clothesline Muse”. You heard her mention a moment ago some of the dates.

Go to our website which are hooked up where you can find it and where you can see it as it makes its way across the country in the coming months and years. Congratulations on it, Nnenna. An honor to have you on this program.

Freelon: Thank you, love, thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: January 29, 2015 at 1:03 pm