Pearl Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky gets a belated New York premiere courtesy of Keen Company as part of its 20th season. Although seen in many regional theaters since its 1995 premiere at the Alliance Theatre Company in Atlanta with Phyllicia Rashad in the leading role, it has long been overdue in New York even though Cleage is also a successful and acclaimed novelist. Framed as a domestic drama, the play manages to take in the topics of racism, sexism, homophobia, birth control and abortion, poverty, alcoholism, and extreme religious points of view among the bohemians of Harlem, circa 1930.
Set as the Harlem Renaissance was turning into the Great Depression among artists and professionals alike, Cleage’s conventional melodrama is old-fashioned in structure, but the characters are three-dimensionally drawn and the plot is engrossing. Although Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston do not appear in the play, one can well imagine them as part of the play’s social milieu.
The play’s protagonist ironically named Angel is a liberated black woman, performing as a showgirl at the Cotton Club. When the play begins she has just found out that her gangster boyfriend Nick has married and locked her out of their apartment. Insulting him in public during a performance at the club, she has been fired and her “cousin” Guy, a homosexual costume designer, has also been sacked. Having nowhere to go, no job prospects and no clothes, Angel moves in with Guy. He is as free-spirited as she, openly gay, partying with the offstage poet Langston Hughes and artist Bruce Nugent, and dreaming of being called to Paris to design costume for expatriate Josephine Baker whom he had known in her American days.
Among their milieu is next-door neighbor Delia, a social worker, who is working with Margret Sanger to open a birth control clinic in Harlem, a facility which is feared by Harlem leaders. She hopes to get the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., of the nearby Abyssinian Baptist Church, interested in their struggles. While fighting for birth control, ironically the prim and proper 25 year old Delia is herself still a virgin. Another friend is Sam, a 40-year-old unmarried baby doctor at Harlem Hospital who can party as hearty as both Angel and Guy.
When Angel gets so drunk on the night she is fired, she has to be almost carried home and Leland, a handsome carpenter recently relocated to Harlem after the death of his wife in child birth, comes to the rescue. He wrangles an invitation to visit Angel at Guy’s and informs her she is the spitting image of his late wife Anna. Although Angel is not happy to be compared to some other woman, she sees Leland as steady and dependable and a possible meal ticket. However, she keeps her options open as Guy expects to be invited to Paris by Josephine any day and has invited her to come along.
The couples pair off, Angel and Leland, and Sam and Delia, with Guy as the upbeat social butterfly flitting between them. However, when Leland discovers that Guy is attracted to men, his ingrained religious scruples come to the fore and he is further incensed when he discovers that Sam has performed abortions. Harlem may have been a place of enlightenment during the Jazz Age but now in the 1930’s, conservatism raises its head. Complications spiral out of control with a case of an unwanted pregnancy and a surprise notice of eviction. Langton Hughes poem about “dreams deferred” comes to mind as well as dreams fulfilled for some of the characters. The play’s ending is shocking but not entirely unforeseen.
While the production has some problematic elements, the cast under the director of LA Williams could not be better. Although many actresses have been attracted to playing the hard-boiled Angel around the country, she is a difficult character to make likeable. Having no tolerance for hypocrisy of any kind, she speaks her mind at all times, but also makes use of men for her meal ticket. However, one must have admiration for her as she is her own boss in a time when most women were wives and mothers and under the thumb of their husbands or boyfriends. Though Alfie Fuller is unable to make Angel sympathetic, she is a totally convincing character as a hardboiled woman who can only depend on herself.
As Guy, bon vivant and artistic genius, John-Andrew Morrison gives a flamboyant and colorful performance though at times he is rather one-note. Nevertheless he is always a commanding, hopeful presence. Sheldon Woodley as Dr. Sam Thomas is a sympathetic and understanding character, though he may not be the 40 year old he is described to be. Jasminn Johnson gives Delia Patterson the innocence and naïveté that this character needs while at the same time revealing her dedication and passion for her work. As Leland newly from Alabama, Khiry Walker is a handsome, brooding presence and is successful in handling Leland’s conservative, old-fashioned attitudes in opposition to the Harlem denizens he is meeting.
You-Shin Chen’s setting for Guy and Delia’s apartments side by side, showing Guy’s living room, and Delia’s dining room, is serviceable but awkward. The space behind the apartments by which the characters sometimes exit is never clearly defined (an alley? the back entrance?) and the stoop on which the characters occasionally sit seems rather curtailed. Asa Benally’s costumes are both evocative of the period and define the characters. However, as we never see any of the outfits that Guy makes for Josephine Baker, we never know how good a designer he actually is meant to be. In addition, pretending that Angel, a very svelte woman, can fit perfectly into a dress meant for Delia, a rather plus size actress, is stretching credibility.
The most effective element of the production is the original bluesy jazz by sound designer Lindsay Jones which precedes each scene. Oona Curley’s lighting is all the better for being unobtrusive. The fight and intimacy direction of Michael Rossmy and Kelsey Rainwater is worthy of mention. LA Williams’ production of Pearl Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky goes a long way to introducing this long overdue dramatic and fascinating play to New York audiences.
Blues for an Alabama Sky (through March 11, 2020)
Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.telecharge.com
Running time: two hours and 35 minutes with one intermission