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Theatre in Review: Blues for an Alabama Sky (Keen Company/Theatre Row)

Caption: Alfie Fuller, Khiry Walker. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

It's appropriate that Blues for an Alabama Sky begins with its heroine, Angel, being dragged home in a state of inebriation. After all, it is uptown New York, 1930, and the hangover from the Harlem Renaissance is commencing; Angel will be among the first to feel the pain. Accompanying Angel are two very, very different male companions -- Guy and Leland -- each of whom embodies the wildly opposing forces that will upend her life. The playwright, Pearl Cleage, puts these and other richly imagined characters into a highly combustible situation that explodes with consequences both ironic and tragic.

Guy and Angel, émigrés from Georgia -- they say they are cousins, but their true (and sordid) provenance doesn't come clear until very late -- are creatures of Harlem's tumultuous years of creative ferment. She is a singer working backup at the Cotton Club; he is a costume designer at that fabled institution, famous for serving up exotic images of black women for all-white audiences. But, as the play begins, the party is ending: Angel has been dumped by her mobbed-up lover and has committed the unpardonable sin of making a public scene over it; as a result, she is out of a job. Guy, guilty by association, has gotten the boot, too.

It's not a great time to be unemployed. The Depression is sweeping the country and Harlem is quickly losing its status as a hive of artistic and sexual experimentation. Everyone tries to pretend otherwise: Langston Hughes is back in town, the writer and artist Bruce Nugent is still throwing parties at which Angel is usually the only female guest, and drag balls are still around for those who enjoy them, but nightclubs are closing, eviction notices are everywhere, and people are living on the street. Guy insists to the highly skeptical Angel that he can support them both, thanks to some side design gigs; he is also certain that his old friend Josephine Baker, now officially the toast of Paris, will be sending them enough money for passage to new lives in France; wven without Angel's scathing commentary, this seems like the wispiest of dreams.

At the same time, new concerns are roiling the community. Delia, a social worker and Angel and Guy's next-door neighbor, has teamed up with Margaret Sanger and is determined to open a local family-planning clinic. The words "birth control" get a chilly reception from many in the community, especially followers of Marcus Garvey, who consider it a tool of eugenicists. Seeking to win over Adam Clayton Powell, the influential minister of the Abyssinian Baptist Church (and something of a heartthrob to many Harlem ladies), Delia enlists the help of Sam, a hard-working, hard-playing obstetrician, who hangs out with Angel and Guy.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Blues for an Alabama Sky is its depiction of the relaxed social attitudes of the times. The heterosexual Sam and prim, proper Delia -- her unglamorous wardrobe is the subject of many cutting remarks -- are totally at home with Angel and Guy, freely and fondly socializing with them at local restaurants and theatres. (Delia, offering her own brand of advice, asks Angel, "Aren't there any colored gangsters you could in fall in love with?") If the first act sometimes seems a tad leisurely, circling around the same points, the characters -- under LA Williams' lovingly detailed direction -- make for excellent company.

Indeed, for most of the first act, Blues for an Alabama Sky plays like a four-part character study, but don't forget Leland, who helped bring home the drunken Angel in the first scene. Cleage reintroduces him, allowing him to shake things up, big-time. A recent arrival from Alabama, he is still mourning his young wife, who died in childbirth; the baby was lost, too. Leland openly admits he is drawn to Angel because she is a dead ringer for the departed, and, at first, she is amused by his blunt sincerity and country ways. But Angel is also weary of being used by men and burdened with too many memories she would rather forget -- and, following a disastrous club audition that is, in fact, an interview to be another mobster's moll, she decides to keep Leland around as an option.

As it happens, Delia has just drastically overplayed her hand. Leland has marriage on his mind, but his simple religion is no match for the doings in Harlem. He is openly repelled by Guy's sexual orientation, and his only comment on birth control is: "The cure for mothers who don't want babies is fathers who do." And, when pressed, he is only too willing to take action to defend his sense of right and wrong. In a second act marked by a firebombing, two gay-bashing incidents, surprise revelations from Paris, and an unwanted pregnancy, the play's two narrative lines converge, with shattering consequences for everybody. It is probably true that only after intermission does one realize how deftly Cleage has woven her characters' stories into the big issues of the day, raising uncomfortable questions for which there are no easy answers.

Williams has assembled a first-rate cast, beginning with the rising Alfie Fuller as Angel, a character whose intolerance of hypocrisy and calculating nature risks alienating the audience. Even at her most callous, her blistering honesty is oddly exhilarating: She admits -- behind Leland's back - that she sees in him "a rent check that won't bounce." And in what is arguably the play's most cauterizing scene, she reminds Sam that he was willing to give her an abortion when she was pregnant by a white man, so why does he flinch at another case, in which both parents are black? Her refusal to accept pleasant lies puts her friends on edge, and it may do the same out in the paying seats. But Fuller refuses to sand down the character's sharp edges, gambling - successfully, in my view -- that Cleage's writing is strong enough to keep us eager to find out what Angel will do next.

Also, the portly, silver-tongued John-Andrew Morrison turns Guy -- at first sight, a fairly stereotypical queen -- into a credible font of wisdom. (In this case, appearances deceive; Guy is gifted with better-than-average coping skills and, in the event, he turns out to be far less tragic that one initially suspects.) Sheldon Woodley is a handsome, affable Sam, who -- despite his taste for nightlife and the bottle -- finds himself irresistibly drawn to Delia, played with just the right mix of innocence and smarts by Jasminn Johnson. (On Sam's first visit, she pointedly leaves the front door open; on his second, she offers a passionate kiss, and much more.) Khiry Walker's Leland seamlessly transitions from earnest, bright-eyed ardor to something more menacing when his beliefs are challenged.

The production benefits from You-Shin Chen's set, which lays out the living room of Angel and Guy's place and the kitchen of Delia's apartment, both backed by an artfully illustrated drop depicting the exterior of a Harlem block. Oona Curley's lighting attractively creates a variety of time-of-day looks. Asa Benally's costumes have true period style; check out the dress that Angel borrows from Delia, hoping to make an impression at her audition. Lindsay Jones' original music and sound design are solid enough, but I wonder about the use of ragtime for the preset music, as well as the rather post-thirties style of some contributions. Perhaps something closer to the Louis Armstrong or Ellington sounds of the era would be closer to the mark.

Blues for an Alabama Sky was first done in 1999, and it was quite a popular item in resident theatres for a time; it never made it to New York until now. Seeing it at Keen Company, I can't imagine why. If it is rather conventionally constructed, it is as solidly built as a Harlem row house and Its account of characters caught up in rapidly changing times and shifting social mores remains highly pertinent. It is as engrossing as a good novel, offering a trip to another time while commenting on issues that remain vital today. --David Barbour

(19 February 2020)

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