by Tulis McCall
Blues for an Alabama Sky, by Pearl Michelle Cleage is a play that sneaks up on you. This is the intimate story of a few interconnected lives in Harlem 1930. They are an awkward, ill sorted bunch of black people, here referred to as “Negroes.” They are an unexpected community to the observer. Despite this productions limitations, these characters make it across the divide between us, land and stick.
Angel (Alfie Fuller) and her cousin Guy (John-Andrew Morrision) have moved to Harlem to catch hold of the Harlem Renaissance when residents were living the high life and Harlem was awash in opportunity. The Renaissance is a memory win 1930. As the play opens, Angel is on the receiving end of being dumped by her gangster boyfriend and being fired by the nightclub he owns. Angel is a volatile thing who is focused on her trajectory and where she could ding the best place to land. On this night the lands in her cousins apartment because she has no where else to go. Her cousin Guy is an openly “homosexual” man who has a flair for costume design and a wish wagon connected to Josephine Baker. Paris is his dream and his destination. That is his dream and he will give it up for no one.
The stories woven into this partnership are subtle and life altering. Delia (Jasminn Johnson) is a neighbor in a cramped apartment building. She is a social worker determined to bring Margret Sanger’s family planning to Harlem. Sam (Sheldon Woodley) is a doctor at Harlem Hospital, specializing in gynecology. And Leland (Khiry Walker) is the soft spoken stranger from Alabama whose manner belies beliefs that contradict the Harlem he has entered.
Cleage’s storytelling skills are meticulous. The web connecting these people spins out as we watch. Idle wishes turn into life changing and life threatening situations that are part choice and part circumstance. The Depression is taking over the country and it is every person on guard. Watching this story involves a bit of time travel. The “olden days” are not so olden here. They are not so different or so far away. Prejudice and pride live in 1930 Harlem just as much as they do today. Even more striking is that this play was written in 1995, when the closets were filled with people hiding, and birth control was considered a done deal.
Less satisfying was the design and direction of this production. You-Shin Chen created a set that shows us how cramped the living was for these people. The design, however, is such that the actors can barely find room to turn around, and thus the action is compromised. Surprising that LA Williams did not seem to notice this. The actors do their very best, but the production suffers as a result.
Nevertheless, Cleage’s writing overcomes limitations, including the uneven performances by this cast. The conclusion of the story – as the characters reconfigure their trajectories – is haunting and will stick to your mind and heart more than you might expect.
BLUES FOR AN ALABAMA SKY by Pearl Cleage, Directed by LA Wiliams
WITH: Alfie Fuller, Jasminn Johnson, John-Andrew Morrision, Khiry Walker, and Sheldon Woodley.
Keen Company will present this limited Off-Broadway engagement of Blues for an Alabama Sky through Saturday March 14th only. TICKETS HERE