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Blues for an Alabama Sky
a Drama
by Pearl Cleage

COMPANY : Live Arts Theatre [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Belfry Playhouse (inside Norcross Presbyterian Church) [WEBSITE]
ID# 5356

SHOWING : January 18, 2019 - February 02, 2019



It is the summer of 1930 in Harlem, New York. The creative euphoria of the Harlem Renaissance has given way to the harsher realities of the Great Depression. Young Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., is feeding the hungry and preaching an activist gospel at Abyssinian Baptist Church. Black Nationalist visionary Marcus Garvey has been discredited and deported. Birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger is opening a new family planning clinic on 126th Street, and the doctors at Harlem Hospital are scrambling to care for a population whose most deadly disease is poverty. The play brings together a rich cast of characters who reflect the conflicting currents of the time through their overlapping personalities and politics. Set in the Harlem apartment of Guy, a popular costume designer, and his friend, Angel, a recently fired Cotton Club back-up singer, the cast also includes Sam, a hard-working, jazz-loving doctor at Harlem Hospital; Delia, an equally dedicated member of the staff at the Sanger clinic; and Leland, a recent transplant from Tuskegee, who sees in Angel a memory of lost love and a reminder of those “Alabama skies where the stars are so thick it’s bright as day.” Invoking the image of African-American expatriate extraordinaire, Josephine Baker as both muse and myth, Cleage’s characters struggle, as Guy says, “to look beyond 125th Street” for the fulfillment of their dreams.

Cast Lee Brewer Jones
Director D Norris
Assistant Director Becca Parker
Stage Manager Janet Conant
Set Design Becca Parker
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Blacks in a Harlem Night
by playgoer
Sunday, January 27, 2019
Pearl Cleage’s "Blues for an Alabama Sky" isn’t a terribly descriptive title. The action takes place in Harlem, during the Harlem Renaissance, and while one character does hail from Alabama, he’s the character with the least stage time. The title is at least evocative of a bygone time and of unfulfilled yearnings. The sound design by Becca Parker and D Norris underlines the time period and the sense of bluesy regret that weaves through the story. Bethany Oliver’s props help establish the time period, despite the use of a non-period stick ballpoint pen.

Live Arts’ set, designed by Ms. Parker, squeezes two side-by-side brick apartments, the hall between them, and the building’s stoop into the small confines of the basement theatre. It’s not all architecturally true-to-life, with the stoop off to one side, and with action in the apartments extending beyond the limits of imaginary walls. One particularly inventive moment has Angel (Sherna Phillips) speaking out a window stage left to Leland (Jonathan McCullum), who is stage right and facing away from her, to simulate a split-screen conversation between Angel in an upstairs apartment and Leland in the street below. With Ms. Parker’s dim lighting design, you definitely get the feeling of a dark Harlem night.

The action takes place over time, and Jordan Hermitt’s costume design gets quite a workout. There’s not only the clothes the actors wear; there’s also the costumes the character Guy (André Eaton) designs for a living. Not everything fits particularly well, but consideration has been given throughout to make the wardrobe give the feel of 1920’s Harlem. The conservative dresses of Delia (Marita McKee) contrast with the Jazz Age garb of Angel, and doctor Sam (Rodney Johnson) has the lived-in look of a man comfortable in his own skin.

D Norris has directed the show to get heartfelt performances out of everyone concerned. There’s not a great variety of pacing, though, and the earnestness of all the portrayals gives a certain sameness to the production. There’s the opportunity for a great deal of comedy in the shy sexual awakening of Delia and the fey sassiness of Guy, but comedy is downplayed in the production. While some characters do have hopeful futures at the end of the play, the overriding mood is of the bleakness faced by Angel and the loss felt by Delia. The blues, indeed.


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