Many tales have been told and legends passed down of the Harlem Renaissance when the “New Negro” emerged from the dust and toil of the American South. A surge of artists, preachers, and hopeful souls reached for that American dream. Author and playwright Pearl Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky is set in 1930. The nightlife in Harlem has lost its glitter for singer Angel Allen (Tiffany Renee Johnson), who is best friends with “notorious homosexual” and fashion designer Guy Jacobs (a fantastic Breon Arzell). They made their escape from a Savannah brothel and sought to recreate themselves in Harlem. Mikael Burke’s direction keeps the action moving yet lingers perfectly for moments of tension.
The play opens with a very drunk Angel being carried home by Guy and a gallant stranger revealed later to be Leland Cunningham (Ajax Dontavius). Johnson and Arzell have a natural and authentic chemistry that enhances their characters. Angel is not a great singer and has her job because she is the mistress of the mafia-backed owner of the nightclub. Her benefactor marries a nice Italian girl and Angel throws a tantrum on the stage leading to her firing and eviction from the nice pad she was kept in.
Johnson does not start off quite in the groove. She is playing drunk more than inhabiting the role. She was not giving off the visceral anger and rejection of being out of a job and dumped. Johnson’s performance improves greatly as the play progresses. She does a great job as a woman who uses her body and her friends to survive and try to escape Harlem—which she sees as a place littered with broken people. Arzell really shines as Guy, who is a hustler with a gift for fashion and the turn of a phrase. “I will cut him six ways from Sunday” got laughs from the audience and puzzlement from a couple behind me. Cleage’s writing is known for what I call “Black-isms” that leap off the page and are excellent dialogue if done properly. Arzell has perfected the lilt and sass that befits his character.
Angel and Guy live next door to prim and proper Delia Patterson (Jazzlyn Luckett Aderele). Delia is a social worker aligned with Margaret Sanger to open a family planning clinic in Harlem. Luckett-Aderele is a skilled performer who gives the character of Delia a sense of propriety but is also quite funny. A running gag is her sense of fashion, which is appalling to her fashionable neighbors. The backstory of Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Sr. giving his assistance to Margaret Sanger is actually true but it fell apart when Black women were being sent to white doctors. The play alludes to Sanger’s eugenics-based beliefs being more about race control than building healthy families. Delia is eventually drawn to a Black doctor, Sam Thomas (Edgar Sanchez), a hard-drinking friend of Angel and Guy.
Sanchez is brilliant as Sam. He enters passing around some rotgut liquor and celebrating how many babies he delivered. He and Luckett-Aderele have a simmering chemistry that made me root for them as a couple. Sanchez is skilled in portraying the dark side of being a doctor in Harlem. He helped Angel when she got pregnant by her mafia lover and is torn about helping her again when a pregnancy by Leland becomes very inconvenient. Sanchez plays that conflict between a good-time man and a man of science. Leland is right off the train from Alabama and carries Black Southern values close to his heart.
Dontavius’ portrayal steals the show. Leland is a heartbroken man whose wife died in childbirth and his son died with her. His description of them lying dead side by side in the hospital is heartbreaking. Dontavius’ body language is very country without any of the airs of being a Harlem swell. His final confrontation with Angel is filled with explosive heat. His performance is a perfect balance of grief and anger.
The plot of Blues for an Alabama Sky has some holes in it that are filled at odd points. Overall it is a believable story of love, dreams, and betrayal. The dialogue is very familiar to me as a descendant of Southern transplants. Some of it sounds like my mom and grandmother on the phone. Angel, Guy, Sam, and Delia have formed a chosen family that goes through the same challenges as a family one is born into.
I loved the set design by Lauren Nichols. Guy’s apartment has flocked wallpaper that looks dingy from smoking with a Josephine Baker movie poster done in saturated colors. The kitchen is in the same room and has a cramped vibe that is choking Angel’s dreams while inspiring Guy to drive hard toward getting to Paris. That chaise is everything and the perfect centerpiece for the apartment. Delia’s apartment is tiny as well with the kitchen set as the first room seen coming in the door. Sam Paulson’s props are perfect and to me were characters on their own. The champagne bucket, the sewing machine, and that movie poster pulled me into the era.
I enjoyed Blues for an Alabama Sky as a whole. There are some kinks with pacing and some of the acting takes some time to get into the groove. I definitely recommend this play and think that it may inspire some dives into the rabbit hole of Harlem Renaissance history for some viewers. The gay scene was more of a driving force than maybe is widely known. Guy’s references to Langston Hughes and his parties populated with handsome men have a basis in truth. That party sounds like the notorious buffet flats where LGBTQ and Black folks were free to be however and whatever they pleased.
Remy Bumppo’s Blues for an Alabama Sky runs 2 hours and 40 minutes with a 15-minute intermission. The show is now playing through October 15 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont in the Belmont Theater District. Tickets and information can be found at www.remybumppo.org.
For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.
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