Five characters collide in Harlem during the 1930s and although they have big dreams, not all of those hopes will be realized in Pearl Cleage’s “Blues for an Alabama Sky.” Under the direction of Phylicia Rashad, this is a lusty, lustrous production at the Mark Taper Forum in Downtown Los Angeles that reminds us of where we’ve been.
Angel Allen (Nina Okoro) is a singer who had pinned her hopes on a man, believing his promises and living with him. Things turned out differently than she thought. “He didn’t dump me; he got married.” In her despair, when he showed up at her club, she changed her act to include a public display of anger. She’s been fired, and, because she was living with him, homeless and without anything but the clothes she had on that night. The audience doesn’t get to see that drunken drama. The play begins as her friend, Guy Jacobs (Greg Alvarez Reid), hauls her drunken ass to his apartment, helped by a courteous stranger, Leland Cunningham (Dennis Pearson).
Guy is her gay guardian angel, who came with Angel to New York, seeking a new life. The image of Josephine Baker dominates Guy’s room. He’s been corresponding with her, hoping that she’ll be impressed with his costume designs and send for him. In Paris, he tells Angel, they will be free and find their good luck. It’s the Depression and jobs are hard to come by, particularly if you’re like Angel and have made a public spectacle of yourself.
Across the hallway, is Delia Patterson (Kim Steele), a sensible woman and a great admirer of Margaret Sanger. Patterson hopes to gain Sanger’s confidence to open a family planning clinic in Harlem. A friend to them all is Doctor Sam Thomas (Joe Holt) who Delia finds suspicious because she doesn’t think a doctor should declare, “Let the good times role.”
Everyone wants to help Angel in someway and each gives her something, but what does she give them? She has many friends, but is she anyone’s friend?
When Leland returns to inquire about her health, he reveals that she reminds him of his dead wife. He’s from Alabama and intends to return after he’s finished helping his cousin with some construction. Leland’s a carpenter and his beliefs are boxed in by strong fundamentalist Christian beliefs that guide and misguide him.
As the center of everyone’s good intentions, Okoro’s Angel is like temptation in disguise. Okoro plays her as not essentially bad, but slightly lazy and wholly self-involved. Reid is a large man and his Guy isn’t one easily intimidated by the rampant homophobia of the times. He’s like a fairy godfather to Angel, a better big brother figure than most real kin could ever be. His Guy can work with the flow, but Pearson’s Leland is the rigid opposite. Steele’s Delia is a determine woman, whose drive and intelligence has alienated her from the average Black Harlem male resident, but she blossoms with the help of Holt’s Sam as he advises her on how to approach the church elders. Holt’s Sam is a guarded man, weighed down by his responsibilities to the community. Wendell C. Carmichael’s costume, wig and hair design work beautifully, especially with a certain purple dress that could have transformed Steele’s Delia, but instead if eagerly grabbed by Okoro’s Angel as a way to insure a successful audition.
Dontae Winslow’s original music sets the tone because although the central figure, Angel, is a singer and Okoro’s Angel does sing, this is not a play set to music or a play with music. Even when Angel sings, Okoro doesn’t make it smooth or melodic. Her voice is rough, as if reflecting her emotional state and the possibility that her vocal skills are bolstered by her willingness to embrace the casting couch.
“Blues for an Alabama Sky” is two hours with one 15-minute intermission and Cleage isn’t just writing about Black frustration festering in a time of cultural blossoming in Harlem. This is a thoughtful play that might make you re-evaluate your dreams and your friendships. There’s an air of tragedy that comes not only from the title, but the knowledge that Paris will soon be overrun by the Nazis and even Josephine Baker will have to rely on both her cunning and courage to survive. (Baker received a French Resistance medal, the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor). With the current political trend, the ongoing fight to maintain family planning services to the poor is one that will outlast both Delia and Sam. But none of these characters know what the future holds (and I’m not giving away any spoilers) and our knowledge of the future beyond the final scene lends a bluesy poignancy to all their hopes and dreams.
Tickets for “Blues for an Alabama Sky” are currently on sale at Center Theatre Group / Mark Taper Forum and start at $30. They are available through CenterTheatreGroup.org, Audience Services at (213) 628-2772 or in person at the Center Theatre Group Box Office (at the Ahmanson Theatre at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012). Performances run Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m., Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. Call for exceptions.