BLUES FOR AN ALABAMA SKY Tackles a Checklist of Timely Social Issues

Friendships, dreams, and living an authentic life. Pearl Cleage’s play, Blues for an Alabama Sky, first produced in 1995, explores how these themes intersect with issues of economic hardship, reproductive health care, and homophobia, during the summer of 1930 after the Harlem Renaissance was interrupted by the 1929 stock market crash. Playmakers’ production languidly glides along like the sultry days of its setting.

Matthew Smucker’s period-accurate set design truly evokes the feeling of confined urban living. A sketch of Harlem rooftops overlooks two city apartments separated by a long hallway; one is sparsely furnished and the other lavishly crowded with furniture, bolts of cloth, a sewing machine, and costumes hanging on a rack.

The inhabitants of these apartments are not just neighbors, but close friends, a makeshift family. Guy, a gay, now unemployed costume designer, has opened his door to Angel, a nightclub singer who just lost both her latest man and her job.  Delia, or Deal to her friends, occupies the more modest space. As a social worker and activist, she wants to establish a family planning clinic in the neighborhood. Their other friend, Sam, a doctor, works long hours in the community and parties just as hard. 

Conversations among this independent-minded quartet focus on their ambitions and desires to live on their own terms, something that isn’t easy for any of them. Guy wants to live openly in Paris and design for his idol, Josephine Baker, her portrait hanging in his apartment like a shrine. Angel is constantly trying to maneuver herself into a favorable position for her own comfort and security, while Delia and Sam dream of bettering the lives of their neighbors.

Disruption occurs with the entrance of an Alabama widower, Leland Cunningham, looking for a new life, as well as a wife. Angel has caught his eye, but they are from different worlds. Leland’s conservative views represent everything Harlem progressives have rebelled against, and therefore challenge the group dynamics. It’s a slow burn to a somewhat predictable ending.

How these characters pursue their goals works to maintain audience interest. Tia James portrays Angel as a forceful diva, often not being completely truthful to either her friends or herself. Unfortunately, this very trait makes her rather unlikeable, and James hides Angel’s vulnerability so deeply that she elicits very little sympathy for her eventual fate. Heinley Gaspard’s Leland feels more representative than dimensional. He’s solid in his interactions with the others, but his actions seem more contrived than reactionary.

Saleemah Sharpe portrays the more restrained Delia with a charming naivete tinged with an awkwardness that almost undercuts her championing of birth control access. André G. Brown offers a convincing portrait of a complex man wrestling with his conscience and morals as a compassionate community doctor too keenly aware of health care inequities.

Guy’s plight is more complex as he faces both racism and homophobia and refuses to back down. Jamar Jones channels a bit of Billy Porter’s character from Pose in his portrayal of Guy, fierce and somewhat single-mindedly pursuing his goals. Yet Jones also grounds Guy by keeping his tender side just below the surface.

Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky tackles a checklist of issues almost at the expense of its characters. As directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton, Head of Directing and Playwriting at the University of Washington’s School of Drama, this production shimmers best when these characters reveal their vulnerabilities, underscoring their need to connect in a difficult world.

Blues for an Alabama Sky runs through September 25. For more information visit https://playmakersrep.org/show/blues-for-an-alabama-sky/.

To hear Beltline to Broadway’s podcast interview with Valerie Curtis-Newton, click here.

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