Pulitzer Prize-winner John Archibald turns to playwriting with ‘Pink Clouds’

Photo courtesy of John Archibald.

John Archibald has been in journalism more than three decades, earning the Pulitzer Prize and many other accolades as a reporter and columnist for The Birmingham News and AL.com.

But it wasn’t until spending a year at Harvard University as part of the prestigious Nieman Fellowship for journalists that Archibald realized his talents could translate to the stage.

“As part of the fellowship, we took classes, and I wanted to take a class in screenwriting, actually,” Archibald says. “I tried to get in, but it was full, and the professor said he had a playwriting class he was doing. I did it. Loved it and took a second one with him. It seemed like such a better way to tell a story than writing a column.”

Birmingham audiences can decide for themselves at this week’s Human Rights New Works Festival at Red Mountain Theatre Sept. 22-25. A reading of Archibald’s “Pink Clouds” will take place Saturday, Sept. 24, at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

“Honestly, I was stunned at how much I enjoyed it and sort of stunned at how natural it all came to me,” Archibald says of playwriting. “It’s all dialogue. There’s a freedom to it because it’s fiction.”

Like his work for AL.com and his book, “Shaking the Gates of Hell,” which came out in 2021, Archibald’s play is set in Alabama and doesn’t shy away from heavy and often controversial topics.

The play “developed out of this notion that I’ve written about a thousand times in columns, this hypocrisy we have about definitions of life and what it means how it means different things to different people,” Archibald says. “It is sort of centered around executions because I’ve had to witness a bunch of those during my career But there are sort-of related issues, too, whether it’s abortion or chemical endangerment.

“I would love to write about things that are just for the sake of having fun,” he adds with a laugh. “But I’m addicted to having some kind of point.”

And that fits right into RMT’s Human Rights New Works Festival, which is in its fifth year.

The festival explores “issues and emotions too difficult for mere words,” according to the theater.

In addition to “Pink Clouds,” this year’s lineup includes:

> “Bar Mitzvah in Birmingham,” about an Orthodox Jewish family from Brooklyn that finds itself in a small town outside Birmingham. (Sept. 22, 7:30 p.m.)

>“The Calling: The Story of Judge U.W. Clemon,” by Troy University Associate Professor Quinton Cockrell. The show is about the judge and civil rights icon and is reserved for school groups and not open to the public.

>“The Crossing,” featuring stories of the immigrant experience in Birmingham woven together by director Santiago Sosa, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. (Sept. 23, 7:30 p.m.)

>“Touch,” an opera, performed in partnership with Opera Birmingham, that picks up with the story of Helen Keller where “The Miracle Worker” leaves off. (Sept. 25 at 2 p.m.).

Archibald says he’s enjoyed discovering playwriting as a tool in his writing arsenal.

“I don’t think there’s much chance of me having a long career as a playwright, but I’d love to give it hell,” he says. “It makes me think of things in different ways. I think that’s healthy, not just professionally, but personally, too.”

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