Blues for an Alabama Sky opens with the perfect Hollywood image of prohibition era nightlife, complete with bootleg gin, bias cut satin, and the mixing of the molls, mobsters, and jazz of Harlem hot spots in the 30’s.
Written by Pearl Cleage 25 years ago, the play feels prescient, with references to women’s reproductive rights, gay bashing, harassment in the workplace, the power of the church in local politics, struggles to pay the rent while pursuing creative vocations – these things were then as they are now, maybe just not as loud.
What also hasn’t changed is that people have dreams that other people will alternately support, discourage, thwart or mock. The lynchpin dreamer of the play is Guy, played with the fiercest of optimism by John-Andrew Morrison. Plugging away in the “gig economy,” making costumes for showgirls and drag balls, he defies anyone to disabuse him of the notion that Josephine Baker will be calling him to Paris any day now to create fabulous costumes for her.
Guy dreams of being openly who he is without having to battle bullies on the corner; he dreams of sharing Paris with those he loves. While Morrison’s characterization is at times predictable, we know exactly who he is and can’t help but be charmed.
Seemingly unconditional love for his “cousin” Angel (Alfie Fuller), whom Guy supports both financially and emotionally, resembles the sparring of a brother and sister or long-married couple. Fuller’s Angel is a warrior embodied in a tightly wrapped sexuality as she relentlessly fights for survival, taking every opportunity and loss for what she can get out of it. This is a heroine who we want to win, but we’re not always comfortable with the choices she makes along the way. She’s a fierce Betty Boop, cooing sweet torch songs, flaunting her assets, and gaming the joint.
Costume Designer Asa Benally has taken full advantage of the assets Fuller flaunts, and her costumes for the entire cast are tailored to perfection.
While somewhat stereotypical, the characters aren’t caricatures. Delia, the neighbor across the hall, is at first glance Angel’s opposite. Angel raised herself up from the whorehouses of Georgia to the night clubs of Harlem; Delia, a social worker who wears sensible shoes, is a virgin and goes to church. She’s sassy, smart and open to change, just in a more practical trajectory.
Inspired by Margaret Sanger to build a family planning clinic in Harlem, Delia enlists the aid of Sam, a successful doctor burning the candle at both ends while enjoying nightlife. Sheldon Woodley as Sam subtly portrays pride of professional accomplishment juxtaposed with the social and cultural pleasures afforded him. In Doc and Delia’s developing story, both actors bring an honest reality to a burgeoning relationship that is both old-fashioned and modern, perhaps the most gender-equal partnership in the play.
Without venturing far from the apartments, we get a sense of other neighbors in Harlem. Adam Powell has all the ladies a-flutter at church, Langston Hughes and Bruce Nugent are holding forth at all night parties…according to Guy, “Harlem was supposed to be a place where Negroes could come together and really walk about, and for a red-hot minute, we did. But this isn’t the end of the world, you know. It’s just New York City.”
Is it about dreams, survival, family?
When Angel confronts Doc about his conflicting attitudes towards abortion, she opines that Harlem’s “building a new generation is white women teaching colored women to stop making babies.” Can we embrace the pioneers of birth control without the shadow of eugenics that was so much a part of its origins?
Leland (Khiry Walker), the handsome young man from Alabama, tells his new friend that he’s from the beautiful farmland of Tuskegee. Don’t we immediately recall the Tuskegee Syphilis Study or the Tuskegee Airmen? And with all the sincere conviction of his religious and ethical beliefs, how do we accept Leland’s horror at Guy’s sexuality or his simple tenet that “the cure for mothers who don’t want babies is fathers who do.” In an era where change is finding a voice, this man will not hear it. Walker tackles this role with a naive grace.
The music that precedes and underscores the play is excellent, thanks to Lindsay Jones’ original music and sound design. (An audience member commented that Angel’s singing was not “bluesy” enough. The torch singers of that era were not all Bessie Smith-belters, as you can hear listening to Ethel Waters or Helen Morgan. Fuller’s Angel was just fine, especially since she was likely hired for more than her voice.)
Painted with an evocative palette of dusky mauves and burgundy, the simple but comprehensive set by You-Shin Chen, is comprised of what at first glance is a home, but is in fact two apartments on opposite sides of the corridor. We sense the feeling of family these neighbors share, back and forth across the hall. That said, the constant “someone comes in, someone goes out, someone comes in” becomes tiresome and I wonder if there might have been a way for the director to work with the set and lighting to minimize repetitive comings and goings.
Behind the apartments we see illustrated rows of shuttered windows against a violet sky. As night turns to day, subtle lighting brings life to the neighbors behind those shutters. Lighting by Oona Curley is used effectively throughout the play.
LA Williams’ direction drives the pace with captivating energy. He doesn’t present characters where someone has to win and someone else has to lose, exposing us to the alternate facets of each character in their journey.
Is it perfect? No, but it is well worth seeing and should not be missed now that it’s finally here in New York.
Photos by Carol Rosegg
Opening: John Andrew Morrison, Alfie Fuller, Sheldon Woodley
Keen Company presents
Blues For An Alabama Sky by Pearl Cleage
Directed by La Williams
410 West 42nd Street
Through March 14, 2010