“Blues for an Alabama Sky” Should Be More Widely Known
Pearl Cleage’s 1995 play “Blues for an Alabama Sky” is set in 1930 as the famed Harlem Renaissance is being eclipsed by The Great Depression. The play opens with the lead character Angel (a vivid Tsilala Brock) being fired from her job as a nightclub singer and taking up residence with her also newly unemployed, Gay best friend, costume designer Guy (Brandon Alvión). They live across the hall from Delia (Jasminn Johnson) who is struggling to get a family planning clinic started uptown and has an eye on the middle-aged doctor, Sam who frequently stops by for friendship and drinks. All are striving for something that will be answered during the course of the play after the arrival of Leland Cunningham (Deleon Dallas), a carpenter from Alabama who is recovering from the death of his wife and child.
There is more than enough story and themes going on in this rich pageant of a play to justify its over two and a half hour running time. The play is packed with incident with a marriage proposal, a pregnancy, an eviction notice, the introduction of a gun and much more figuring into the eventful plot. The found family works its way through job losses, tight budgets and striving ambition supporting each other with laughter and sympathy. The artists and activist rub shoulders with the bold-faced names of the time: Adam Clayton Powell, Langston Hughes and Josephine Baker.
Into this almost bohemian environment enters Leland, a recent transplant representing the Black diaspora North who promises stability and security to the nightclub singer Angel. “This guy feels like luck to me.” His strict fundamentalist Christian interpretation of the Bible presents a threat to the rest of the characters as his pro-life and homophobia are given full voice. Dallas does a lovely job making this large man attractive and suitably unnerving when his true character is revealed. The challenges of today’s liberals about when to speak to the hatefulness of our neighbors today is made clear.
The cast is terrific and plays exceptionally well together. Brandon Alvión has the showiest role as the flamboyant Guy and plays him with relish. His enjoyment of the part and his own playing is a delight and the audience’s investment in him pays off big time when he’s threatened. Handsome Ryan George carries a lightness about him while making life changing decisions. “I don’t want to work so hard on the body that I forget about the soul.” Jasminn Johnson and Tsilala Brock are effortlessly moving in their diametrically opposed characters and warm friendship.
The set by Sydney Lynne is magnificent! It’s two stories of the apartment building with two sitting rooms, the separating hall, room downstage for critical street scenes and a wall-less upstage allowing us to witness the entrances and exits beyond the comfortable confines of home. The interiors are richly decorated and thoroughly functional to the activities going on. There’s a frame of brick circling the proscenium which reinforces the idea of our privileged view inside the building and its inhabitants and extends the stage set creating a larger environment. There’s great variety in the lighting design of Harlem based Adam Honoré. Danielle Preston scores with every stitch of clothing on this small cast who change frequently. Guy’s smoking jacket is a stunner and the costume pieces that come in for a ribbing are well chosen and appropriately bland earning laughs for their plainness in contrast to the rest of the cast’s finery.
“Blues for an Alabama Sky” may not be the neglected modern classic that Alice Childress’s plays are turning out to be, but it is an eminently worthy play of stature, and it is a crying shame that it has taken over 25 years for it to become more widely known. All theater lovers interested in a fuller, more fair view of the American theater canon need to see Barrington’s priceless contribution.
“Blues for an Alabama Sky” runs through 8/5 at Barrington Stage Company. Tickets: www.barringtonstageco.org or 413-236-8888