A Harlem Renaissance world clashes with an ‘Alabama Sky’
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There are only five superbly well-limned characters in Pearl Cleage’s play “Blues for an Alabama Sky.” But the depth and breadth of their upbringings, their world views, their dreams and their reality is so rich and varied — and so emblematic of the swirl of ideas in that lustrous, in many ways revolutionary era known as the Harlem Renaissance — that they magnify a story of intense intimacy into a tale of epic scope.
Watching the stellar Court Theatre production of the play — which dates from 1999, but in many ways could not be more timely — you might well find yourself wondering why Cleage’s story has never been turned into a movie. (It is not too late.) Yet at the same time, there is more than enough reason to applaud its grand theatricality, as well as the zest and vibrancy of its performers, and the masterful work of director Ron OJ Parson, who is unquestionably on a roll these days with another terrific production (Eugene Lee’s “East Texas Hot Links“) still firing up the stage at Writers Theatre.
And if Hollywood fails to see the light, you might wish that at this very moment, as Harlem is undergoing a latter-day “renaissance” (or, more accurately, a “gentrification”), the powers that be on Broadway would consider transplanting this production in its current form — no celebrities required. It is that good.
‘BLUES FOR AN ALABAMA SKY’
When: Through Feb. 12
Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis
Tickets: $48 – $68
Info: (773) 753-4472;
Run time: 2 hours and
50 minutes with one intermission
“Blues for an Alabama Sky” unfolds in two adjacent apartments in one of those handsome brownstones that now probably sells for many millions, although its occupants in 1930 are living more or less on the edge. One apartment is shared by Angel (Toya Turner), a nightclub singer who, until the moment the play begins, has been having a relationship with an Italian mobster who she hoped would marry her, and Guy (Sean Parris), the openly gay costume designer whose goal is to work for Josephine Baker in Paris, where racial attitudes, at least in bohemian circles, are far different.
Guy, who now hangs out among the posh set that includes writer Langston Hughes, followed the often reckless Angel from Savannah to New York years earlier, and he has served as her protector ever since. He finds himself in that role once again after Angel’s boyfriend informs her he is marrying someone else, and she loses her job in the bargain.
Guy and Angel’s neighbor, Delia (Celeste M. Cooper), could not be more different. As bright and radical in her thinking as she is primly virginal, Delia, a social worker, has joined forces with Margaret Sanger, the early (white) birth control pioneer, and plans to establish a clinic in Harlem that will help women from having unwanted babies and encourage family planning. She seeks the help of Harlem’s renowned and worldly doctor, Sam (James Vincent Meredith), as well as that of the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Sr., whose fabled Abyssinian Baptist church became the activist power center of the black community during the Depression. But she soon realizes that birth control is seen by many in her community as a euphemism for genocide. Along the way, a charming romance develops between the somewhat older, charismatic Sam and the reticent but enchanting Delia.
At the same time, as fate would have it, Angel (who has earned her keep at various times by performing sexual favors) is pursued by Leland (Geno Walker), who Guy dubs her “gentleman caller.” A visitor from Tuskegee, Alabama, Leland is a church-going conservative and skilled carpenter whose beloved wife and baby died in childbirth. These two are clearly as compatible as oil and water, but Angel sees Leland as her meal ticket and Leland is seduced. Not surprisingly, danger lurks.
Cleage’s writing is alive, and funny, and vivid, and passionate, and she brings the complex nature of a particularly gilded moment in Harlem history to life with all its ambiguities of race, sex, religion, medicine and feminism in play. At the same time, Parson has cast the show to perfection and orchestrates every beat so that laughter and tragedy dance closely on each others’ heels.
Turner’s explosive performance — full of desperation, anger and a selfishness born of the will to survive — is sure to garner awards. But she is matched at every turn by the stylish, graceful Parris, the winningly independent but often hilariously clueless Cooper, and the handsome, urbane Meredith, as well as by Walker as the God-fearing man with an August Wilson-like country-bred sense of righteousness.
Linda Buchanan’s set, beautifully lit by Keith Parham, is an architectural beauty that embraces the audience and is full of rich wood, Art Nouveau wallpaper and a working pedal-driven sewing machine. Rachel Healy’s splendid costumes often become characters in themselves. And Joshua Horvath’s sound sets the perfect tone for the period.
If nothing else, this production should be a potent reminder that the Court is ideally positioned, both geographically and artistically, to become a major theatrical partner of the Obama Presidential Library. Pass the word.
NOTE: “Blues for an Alabama Sky” is part of the Harlem Renaissance Celebration in Hyde Park, which is bringing together performing arts, music, film and scholarship. For more information visit http://harleminhydepark.com/. In addition, mark your calendar for Feb. 1 at Chicago’s City Winery for a special program, “Happy Birthday Langston Hughes: A Celebration in Poetry, Prose and Song.” For details visit http://www.citywinery.com.