By Marilyn Lester
Although playwright Pearl Cleage’s 1995-penned Blues for an Alabama Sky has been regularly produced in the US and abroad, the play is only now having its New York premiere by the Keen Company, in a limited production run. It’s a work that deserves to be seen—especially in this top-notch version—despite flaws that emanate from the play itself, principally its dated and unwieldy length of nearly three hours (including intermission). Still, sharp direction by LA Williams and a remarkable cast: Jasminn Johnson Alfie Fuller, John-Andrew Morrison, Khiry Walker and Sheldon Woodley, help keep the action lively and flowing.
Cleage, now 71, has spent her career as a feminist activist, particularly regarding the identity of Black women, whom she considers her primary audience. She writes about sexism, racism, domestic and sexual violence and AIDS in the Black community. Her views on social activism permeate Blues for an Alabama Sky, perhaps too much so. Cleage’s need to preach her gospel, though important and compelling, adds bulk and length to the production.
The action, in two acts, is set in the Harlem of 1930, where the euphoria and explosive creativity of the Great Migration and the Harlem Renaissance has given way to the oppressive reality of the Great Depression—hot on the heels of the stock market crash of 1929. The play brings together five characters who present a slice of life of time and place. Angel (Fuller) is a recently fired Cotton Club singer, now with nowhere to go but to bunk with her loyal best friend, Guy (Morrison), an openly gay costume designer. Across the hall is the forward-thinking Delia (Johnson), an advocate for birth control and reproductive rights and a member of the staff of the recently opened Sanger Clinic. Completing the cast are Guy’s friend Sam (Woodley), a hard-working and hard-drinking physician based at Harlem Hospital, and the “outsider,” Leland (Khiry Walker), a recent transplant from Tuskegee, Alabama, whose country values are 180 degrees from this circle of city friends he’s fallen in with.
Casting for Blues for an Alabama Sky is a brilliance that hits the mark perfectly. The ensemble’s naturalistic performances give body to the meandering script, their chemistry powering the slow forward motion of the play. Angel, who’s described by the playwright as being a bit past her prime, is embodied in Fuller. Perhaps not a femme-fatale, she still emits earthiness and successfully deploys the feminine wiles she’s learned to survive the harsh realities of her life. Angel’s actions at the end of the play, especially regarding Leland, the innocent who falls for her because she resembles his recently deceased wife, could make Angel a target of full-on derision. Instead, we understand what drives her and are moved to forgive. Here then is a key to Cleage’s ability as a writer: her characters are infused with her intense love and empathy for them—and that translates to our receptivity of Angel and the rest.
In Morrison’s Guy resides hope eternal, persistence, wisdom and comic relief, never over-played. Guy is the poster boy for Cleage’s witty, sharp dialogue, which helps to offset the long march from the play’s beginning to its conclusion. Sam (Woodley) and Delia (Johnson) are a compare and contrast mirror of the show-biz bohemianism of Angel and Guy. These are a pair more firmly rooted in “reality,” although they’re not without their own dreams and pipe dreams.
What is a deficit to an otherwise worthy work is the sheer length of time it takes to present a cogent point of view. The path is full of distraction, with a lot of filler taking up its lengthy run time. Such lingering along the way could translate to tedium in a less talented cast. There’s also a growing credibility problem too. And without giving anything away, those familiar with playwright Anton Chekhovs dictum on telegraphing action will see the climax coming a mile away. As Blues for an Alabama Sky draws to an end the believability of its conclusion is called to question. Yet, for all this, it’s a testament to Cleage that the play is regularly produced and often very successfully so.
Set design by You-Shin Chen, as called for in Cleage’s script notes, conforms well to the very long, extended stage space. Asa Benally’costumes vividly portray the 1930s era. Original music and sound design could have been executed with far more attention paid to the blues and to the work of Josephine Baker, a key script reference. Lighting design is by Oona Curley.
Photos: Carol Rosegg
Blues for an Alabama Sky plays through March 14 at Theatre Row, 410 West 42 Street, NYC. Run time is 2 hours 30 minutes with an intermission. For tickets,visit www.telecharge.com, or call 212-239-6200. Tickets are also available at the box office from 12 – 6 pm daily.