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The production of Pearl Cleage’s “Blues for an Alabama Sky” at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum offers a well-acted look at Depression-era Harlem, but ultimately falls flat. The play, directed by Tony Award-winning actress Phylicia Rashad and running through May 8, is pleasantly presented, which is part of the problem. In an attempt to capture nuances of the period and give each character breadth, the pace slows.
The play looks at the lives of three men and two women. The quintet is grappling with love, social change, prejudice and the harsh realities of 1930 in Harlem, where “the Depression killed the nightlife.” The “Blues for an Alabama Sky” production is stymied by trying to add too much depth to each character. It is also hurt by foreshadowing. When a character is seen stowing a gun, it is obviously going to be used. So, the only question is who will be shot?
Characters Each Have Personal Conflicts
The five characters in “Blues for an Alabama Sky” – Angel Allen, Guy Jacobs, Delia Patterson, Sam Thomas and Leland Cunningham – are overly rounded out by Cleage. Each of the roles reflects someone Black who still would have stood out as atypical in Harlem during that period:
- Angel (Nija Okoro here in a role Rashad originated in 1995) is a flashy, nightclub singer, who has just been fired and jilted by her now-married mobster lover. She does not want to lead a tedious, humdrum life, but believes she can when she meets Leland.
- Guy (Greg Alverez Reid) is a costume designer and, as he puts it, “notorious homosexual.” He is determined to wear what he wants and do what he pleases, even after being attacked by street thugs. He dreams of moving to Paris and creating fashion for singer Josephine Baker. He has welcomed Angel to his apartment to sober up and get her life together.
- Delia (Kim Steele) is a prim, young woman who dresses conservatively and is studying typing. However, she is also an activist, striving to give the women of Harlem a choice about their future with a family planning clinic.
- Sam (Joe Holt) is a rare Black physician, who spends his days delivering baby and baby. His evenings are spent drinking at nightclubs and “letting the good times roll.” However, Sam is tired of both being single and delivering babies for women who see no other option. He is deeply religious and opinionated.
- Leland (Dennis Pearson) is recent transplant from Alabama who moved to Harlem after his wife Anna died in childbirth along with their son. However, Leland is haunted by the loss and missing the wide-open, star-filled skies he left behind. He is deeply religious and conservative in nature. Yet, Leland falls in love with Angel.
Each role in “Blues for an Alabama Sky” is well-acted at the Mark Taper, but the slow-moving script sometimes leave them flat. Okoro is overly dramatic at times but makes Angel sympathetic. Reid has most of the play’s witty lines and comes off sincere in his desire to help Angel. Steele’s performance is hampered by her character’s primness. It is hard to like her, or see how she relates to Angel and Guy, except as neighbors. Holt and Pearson are solid.
Plodding Plot Points
The characters’ intertwined lives and the actors’ talent try to sustain the audience’s interest in “Blues for an Alabama Sky.” Ultimately, as attendees get to know the closed-minded, judgmental Leland, it is clear that he will eventually clash with his new friends. He makes comments about Guy, such as, “you call him a man, same as you do me?” He wants Angel to dress very conservatively and is shocked by Delia’s family planning activities.
Cleage’s play puts a lot of emphasis on historical references to 1930s Black Harlem and cultural changes. Josephine Baker, whose portrait stands as inspiration in Guy’s apartment, is just one of the real historical references from the area’s early heyday. In “Blues for an Alabama Sky,” there are references to Langston Hughes, Margaret Sanger, Marcus Garvey, Adam Clayton Powell Sr. and Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. These mentions slow things down and are likely to sail over the heads of many audience members. Homosexuality and homophobia come up as do family planning, racism, religious dogma, gangsters controlling things, questions about a women’s place in home and society, along with abortion. Finally, Prohibition is still in effect during the period depicted, but several characters drink heavily throughout the play.
The staging by John Iacovelli is functional. The “Blues for an Alabama Sky” stage is divided into two apartments (Guy’s and Delia’s) with a small hallway between. The characters sit on the stage edge like a stoop. They also walk in front of the stage when traveling to or from the building. However, the long walks from the sides to the stoop also slow things down. Additionally, the apartments seem too spacious for most working class or middle-class New York, much less Harlem.
Well, ultimately, “Blues for an Alabama Sky,” playing at the Mark Taper through Mother’s Day, May 8, falls flat and is not a “must see.” However, the acting of the cast makes it enjoyable.
By Dyanne Weiss
Performance April 13, 2022
Center Theatre Group: PEARL CLEAGE’S “BLUES FOR AN ALABAMA SKY” OPENS APRIL 13 AND CONTINUES THROUGH MAY 8 AT CENTER THEATRE GROUP / MARK TAPER FORUM
Broadway World: BLUES FOR AN ALABAMA SKY to Open This Week at the Mark Taper Forum
Photos by Craig Schwartz, (top) L-R, Dennis Pearson and Nija Okoro, (inset) L-R, Greg Alverez Reid, Nija Okoro and Kim Steele in “Blues for an Alabama Sky” at Center Theatre Group / Mark Taper Forum.