Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Blues for an Alabama SkyGuthrie Theater
Also see Arty's recent reviews of The Root Beer Lady and Locomotion
The place and time is New York City's Harlem in the first year of the Great Depression. Angel is a blues singer who had gotten drunk "celebrating" the loss of both her job and her boyfriend–the latter being Mick, a white gangster who employed her in his nightclub and tossed her out on the street when, in course of her act, she publicly objected to his numerous other "girlfriends." Guy is an openly gay costume designer for cabarets–including the one that just gave Angel the boot. He believes with all his wide-open heart that his letters and drawings sent to the Black diva Josephine Baker, trounced in the United States but a sensation in Paris, will result in her snatching him up as her personal costume designer. Angel and Guy became soul (but not bed) mates in Savannah, Georgia, before joining the ranks of the multitudes of African Americans making their way to to the cities of the North, with Harlem understood to be the capital of this Great Migration.
Guy and Angel live across the hall from Delia, another member of their chosen family. Delia, reserved and, when compared to Angel, downright dowdy, is another sort of rabble rouser–a social worker fighting to open a birth control clinic in Harlem to give Black women the same ability to control their bodies and their lives recently obtained by the White women elsewhere in New York City. Sam, a physician who doesn't live in the building but is a frequent presence there, completes the foursome. It is apparent that Sam and Delia are sweet on each other, but both are too proper to move the circumstance to its logical conclusion.
Angel is determined to find a new gig while humoring Guy's naive promise that she need not worry because soon he will whisk her off with him to Paris. Meanwhile, Guy attends an endless array of parties, Delia appeals to her pastor at the Abyssinian Baptist Church to support her campaign, and Sam is always ready to "let the good times roll" with his friends. Into this mix, that stranger who helped Angel a couple nights back returns to make sure she is alright after being so debilitated on their first encounter. He is Leland, up from Tuskegee, Alabama, to visit a cousin and to be distracted from his grief over the death of both his wife and son in childbirth. Fixating on Angel, who he says resembles his late wife, Leland believes he has found the cure for his broken heart. But a gaping chasm lies between Leland's narrow, Southern, bible-based world view and the coterie of feminists, homosexuals, abortionists, and blues singers that swirl around Angel.
Director Nicole A. Watson runs her ace cast through this saga that is, in turns, heartbreaking, hilarious, insightful and historical, with the depression era context nipping the heels of the Harlem Renaissance, the emergence and controversies around birth control, and names like Langston Hughes, Margaret Sanger, Josephine Baker, and Reverend Adam Clayton Powell generously dropped throughout. It is true, for example, that Margaret Sanger did open a branch of her downtown birth control clinic, which evolved into Planned Parenthood, in Harlem in 1930, the year in which the play is set.
Watson knits the characters into an altogether believable web of relationships, with the choices each one makes affecting the others. The four New Yorkers are always ready to celebrate. Whether for an audition that offers a slim hope of a new job, completion of another set of drawings to dispatch to Josephine Baker, a new dress, a ray of support for the birth control clinic, their celebrations are not reserved for the big moments in life, but are the lubricant that gets them from one small bump to the next. Watson creates an atmosphere in which such frequent "celebrations" are a form of nourishment for their hungry spirits. Leland comes from a different tradition, where life is to be consecrated rather than celebrated, and a perilous tension roils between the two perspectives.
Broadway veteran Kimberly Marable was seen here last season as Persephone in the national tour of Hadestown, where she had the audience eating out of the palm of her hand. She gives a searing performance as Angel, as lithe and sensuous as Persephone, but saddled with a far deeper well of anguish and a need to reinvent herself every time she is knocked down by life's brutality. She can be the bubbly, exuberant center of attention while bracing for the next fall. Lamar Jefferson is fantastic as Guy, giving free rein to a razor-sharp wit that is always in high gear, steadfastly clinging to his dreams, maintaining his dignity always–even after being beaten up by a pack of gay-baiting roughnecks–and brutally honest but always kind and generous to his beloved friends.
Brittany Bellizeare captures the essence of Delia, strident in her dedication to making change in the world, especially for the people of her race, but reticent, even girlish, in her personal affairs. Stephen Conrad Moore gives a striking performance as Sam, a doctor dedicated to healing in a world fraught with constant injury, and seeking release in his friends and their celebrations, and in his hope of striking something deeper with Delia. Darius Jordan Lee brings Leland vividly to life, beginning with glimpses of his courtly Southern manner and his open affection for Angel, then steadily uncoiling to reveal layers of prejudice, hate and violence.
Sarita Fellows has designed wonderful costumes that reflect the historical period and the temperament of each character, from Guy's smashingly elegant apparel to Angel's dresses that accentuate a sensuality she cannot hide to Delia's stylish but primly tailored garb to Leland's basic wardrobe carried in a suitcase from Tuscaloosa to Harlem. The scenic design rendered by Lawrence E. Moten III works effectively, with the forward space of the Wurtele's thrust stage allotted to Guy and Angel's apartment, furnished with spare but romantic trappings. The rear is divided between Guy's sewing studio and Delia's front parlor, and an oversized photo of Josephine Baker peers down on one and all from above. However, the set feels stretched thin over the vast expanse of that stage. For people living in a compressed community, their environs seem weirdly dispersed. Sherrice Mojgani's lighting design goes a long way toward unifying the far-flung spaces, creating an appropriate atmosphere for every scene, while Paul James Prendergast's sound design and musical backgrounds bring added verve to the play's Harlem setting.
Pearl Cleage is a prolific writer, with numerous plays, novels, essays and poetry to her credit, created over a span of four decades. Blues for an Alabama Sky, commissioned by the Alliance Theater in Atlanta in 1995, was performed as part of the Olympiad during the Summer Olympics held in that city in 1996. Her 1997 novel "What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day" was a 1998 Oprah's Book Club selection. I am deeply gratified to have had this first introduction to her work by way of this production. Blues for an Alabama Sky is an impassioned, well structured and impactful play. Its characters are fully formed, its dialogue rings with authenticity, and its narrative casts shades of Lorraine Hansbury, August Wilson and, especially in its final moments, Tennessee Williams. This marriage of play and production is the Guthrie at its best.
Blues for an Alabama Sky runs through March 12, 2023, the Guthrie Theater, Wurtele Thrust Stage, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $31.00 to $79.00. Seniors (65+), college students (with ID) - $3.00 - $6.00 off per ticket. Public rush line for unsold seats 15 - 30 minutes before performance, up to four tickets: $20.00 on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday evenings; $25.00 on weekend matinees, Friday and Saturday evenings. For tickets and information, please call 612-377-2224 or visit GuthrieTheater.org.
Playwright: Pearl Cleage; Director: Nicole A. Watson; Scenic Design: Lawrence E. Moten III; Costume Design: Sarita Fellows; Lighting Design: Sherrice Mojgani; Sound Design/Composer: Paul James Prendergast; Fight Director: Aaron Preusse; Dramaturg: Faye M. Price; Voice Coach: Keely Wolter; Intimacy: Shae Palic; Resident Casting: Jennifer Liestman; NYC Casting Consultant: McCorkle Casting, Ltd.; Stage Manager: Karl Alphonso; Assistant Stage Manager: Jackie Mercer; Assistant Director: Jessica Natalie Smith.
Cast: Brittany Bellizeare (Delia Patterson), Kevis Hillocks (New Gentleman), Lamar Jefferson (Guy Jacobs), Darius Jordan Lee (Leland Cunningham), Kimberly Marable (Angel Allen), Stephen Conrad Moore (Sam Thomas).