Dreams Deferred and Fulfilled in Blues for an Alabama Sky
The Keen Company gives Pearl Cleage's 25-year-old play an overdue New York premiere.
Whatever your understanding of the Harlem Renaissance, Pearl Cleage's Blues for an Alabama Sky will likely remain an indelible part of that understanding after you see the play in its new Keen Company production, now making its New York premiere at Theatre Row. Not that Blues deals directly with legendary persons of the period; its characters are ordinary denizens of 1930 Harlem whose dreams are pitted against societal forces — racism, homophobia, sexism, overzealous religiosity — within and outside the black community.
Yet what stands out in Cleage's beautifully written play is that it makes that distant time seem inescapably modern, and with its finely drawn characters and a plot that simmers steadily till it explodes like a dream deferred, Blues for an Alabama Sky is one of the most satisfying dramas onstage in New York right now.
The story revolves around Angel (Alfie Fuller), a nightclub singer with a drinking problem who has recently lost her job and her Italian gangster boyfriend. One hot summer, she moves in with Guy (John-Andrew Morrison), an openly gay costume designer who hobnobs with Langston Hughes and dreams of selling his creations to Josephine Baker, a portrait of whom hangs on his wall. Guy's trailblazing neighbor Delia (Jasminn Johnson) has her own goals of creating safe havens for Harlem women to exercise their reproductive rights, along with Sam (Sheldon Woodley), a doctor who shares Delia's values.
But jobs are scarce for singers like Angel, and she puts her plans to find work on the back burner when Alabama native Leland (Khiry Walker) drifts into town and promises to take care of her. Unsurprisingly, religious Leland doesn't take to the immorality of gays and reproductive-rights advocates like Angel's friends. That stops mattering when a change in Guy's fortune gives Angel the chance of a new start without Leland, but going back on her word, she makes a decision that will unintentionally derail all her dreams.
Director L.A. Williams has his finger on the pulse of the play as he lets Cleage's well-paced scenes gradually develop, and then intensifies the speed in the second act. He leads every actor to a solid performance as well. Johnson endears herself as the innocent but resolute proponent of women's self-governance. Woodley plays the exhausted doctor Sam with intelligence and charm. Walker does a fine job conveying, in one scene, the confusion of a straight man when being told of men ogling other men at a Langston Hughes party. Fuller gives a strong performance as Angel, showing us a woman whose story becomes tragic not because she suffers a change but because she seems content not changing at all. Special mention goes to Morrison, who embodies the strength and hope inherent in pursuing a dream that, however unlikely success might seem, must be chased no matter what.
Set designer You-Shin Chen captures the characters' claustrophobic world with its two small apartment rooms that never stifle Guy's and Delia's hard work and ambition. Asa Benally's period-inspired costumes often seem like characters themselves, commenting as they do throughout the play on their wearers' personalities. In a similar way, Oona Curley's lighting subtly highlights Angel's changes in mood as her fantasies of a better life wither. Sometimes a dream does simply dry up like a raisin in the sun.