It is a little unsettling that Pearl Cleage’s Blues For An Alabama Sky set in Harlem in 1930, is so relevant 90 years later in 2020. It deals with the economic uncertainties right after the Great Depression when people were struggling to find jobs and keep themselves and their families sheltered, fed & clothed. It also deals with homophobia and the opposition to women’s reproductive rights and agency over their own bodies. Have we really made so little progress in the last 90 years that we are still struggling with the same issues?
Although this production by the Keen Company marks its NYC debut at Theatre Row, Blues For An Alabama Sky was commissioned by and premiered in 1995 at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta. Centered around the three residents of two small apartments in Harlem, Guy (John-Andrew Morrison), a flamboyant costume designer, his cousin Angel (Alfie Fuller) who is living with him after losing her job as a back-up singer at a nightclub, and Delia (Jasminn Johnson), a social worker trying to set up a family planning clinic in the neighborhood.
Cleage has sprinkled references to well-known Harlem Renaissance figures and places throughout the play, adding to both its sense of familiarity and visceral understanding of the lives of the people on stage. Angel and Guy worked at the Cotton Club, perhaps Harlem’s most famous nightclub of the era, prior to the first scene when Angel’s altercation with her mobster boyfriend got her fired and Guy quit in protest. Delia is working to set up a clinic in Harlem with famed nurse and birth control activist Margaret Sanger who set up America’s first family planning center, and whose organization later turned into Planned Parenthood. She is teased by Guy over her infatuation with her charismatic pastor Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. who founded the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, at the time the largest Protestant church in America. Guy is obsessed with making costumes for the legendary chanteuse Josephine Baker who promised to send for him when she left for Paris and refuses to believe that she will not keep her word as he sends her costume after costume he has designed. He sees Paris as the mecca of tolerance where he would be free to live as a gay black man not only without fear, but with relish.
While the issues the characters struggle with are daunting and life threatening, Cleage has managed to inject humor and hope into the proceedings, mostly through the marvelously outré persona of Guy, who has a very dry wit and an indomitable spirit. John-Andrew Morrison plays him beautifully, making him genuine and human while unabashedly larger than life. Alfie Fuller as Angel captures the historical dilemma of strong but impoverished and marginalized women. By focusing on her own needs and survival, she is often at odds with what society deems as “appropriate” behavior and feelings for a woman. Fuller is able to convey the mounting frustration she feels as she attempts to “fit in” to survive, until her breaking point when she can no longer keep up the façade.
Unfortunately, Angel exemplifies America. She is the only character that has not moved on in the end and stays stuck in her old ways of seeing and being in the world.
(Photo by Carol Rosegg)