One often hears of the brilliance that flowed out of the Harlem Renaissance with little mention of the social struggles that plagued the era. Noted author and playwright, Pearl Cleage, corrects that deficit with an expansive tale that thrillingly knits constant hustling, betrayal, lust, and moral ambiguity together.
In giving Blues for an Alabama Sky a handsome, if delayed NYC premiere, Keen Company and director LA Williams perform an excellent job of shaping the two-and-a-half hour long drama’s numerous minor details into a heart piercing blade. Sadly, when the time comes for that blade to strike, the resultant wound is disappointingly dull thanks to some uneven performances.
Set in the summer of 1930, the play opens with Angel receiving assistance from her friend, Guy. Angel has been fired from her job as a chorus girl and is smothering her sloppy sorrows in intoxication. She receives assurance from Guy that “Daddy will take care of everything” once Josephine Baker, with whom he has been corresponding, hires him as the costume designer of her new show. Angel sees this as a pipe dream and sets her eyes on securing a new performance job, and barring that, a new man to take care of her.
Their neighbor, Delia, is a suffragette follower of Margaret Sanger, who wishes to bring family planning to Harlem. Their pal, Doctor Thomas–one of the few African American doctors in New York–takes a shining to Delia and helps move her plans along.
A mysterious stranger, Leland, comes calling on Angel to declare his love for her. In his telling, she sports an uncanny resemblance to his former wife who died. Having lost another job prospect, and discovered that Guy is broke, Angel decides to take up with Leland, despite his provincial, closed-minded views on homosexuality, religion, and family planning.
These details flow out easily through Jasminn Johnson, who defines Delia’s character with a spot-on coastal Georgian accent and bubbling, yet hesitant enthusiasm, Sheldon Woodley, whose jocular physical performance reveals Doc’s mature age and good time Charlie demeanor whenever he isn’t working or falling asleep, and Khriry Walker’s embodiment of chasmic sorrow and guileless ardor as Leland. The three actors drive the story forward with laid back restraint, as if they were jazz musicians toying with a theme. Their performances are casually naturalistic to the point that one forgets that they are acting.
Johnson telegraphs Delia’s frisson for Doc with a slight quiver in her shoulders, which she reigns in by grasping her hands and looking away for the sake of propriety. In her rendering, Delia is a contrast of standing up straight like a proper lady and wanting to let her fold in on herself to hide from her own yearnings. Woodley all but saunters away with the show with a convivial laugh that leers and attempts to mollify anyone it might offend with equal measure. More than any of his colleagues, Woodley immediately grounds the Blues in the time and setting of Harlem Renaissance as it gave way to the Great Depression. He also paints Doc’s budding love and admiration for Delia with tender brush strokes and easygoing seduction. He knows that she is frightened and must be coaxed into his arms rather than bowled over, and he does so with a deliberate waltz.
Walker imbues Leland with a bold yet stiff walk that gives way in Angel’s presence. His neck cranes forward ever so slightly and his head leans sideways in a charming, though unsuccessful attempt to hide his bashful blush. This paints him as a gentle puppy, but when Angel gives him a surprise kiss, he responds hungrily, unleashing the horny passion trembling beneath Alabama’s surface.
But not all cast members are as strong. John-Andrew Morrison as Guy breezes through important moments just as he walks through the entire show, playing a smug, self-bemused wit who has convinced himself that everything he does is funny without having to bother with entertaining his captive audience. It reminded me of nothing less than Joseph Marcell’s performance as Geoffrey Butler on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Marcell delivered his one-liners with devastating efficiency that kept the sitcom chirruping along, but Blues is a displaced Southern drama and watching a similarly dismissive effect was a chore.
Guy’s character is clearly based upon the flagrant provocateur of the Harlem Renaissance, queer writer Bruce Nugent, who was many things, though never dull as Morrison is here. When Guy makes a sexual pass at Leland, the impropriety of the incident fails to register despite Walker’s outraged response, because Morrison treated it with the same inappropriately affectless regard that he used at the top of the show through to his final appearance.
On the opposite end of the performance spectrum, Alfie Fuller’s Angel is all bluster and zero finesse. From her first temper tantrum, she is an unrestrained tempest of furious flailing about without an objective. This works for some entertaining bits but becomes patchy when trying to locate a throughline to her actions. While playing alongside Johnson–who shines as Delia in the kid sister role, looking up to her worldlier rival–Woodley, or Walker, Fuller deploys greater gradations of feeling because they give her modulating reactions to play against. But more often than not she hammers away with a one-size-fits-all wallop.
Blues paints the truth of living while Black in America without pulling any punches. It plays perfectly for this era of regressive attacks on women’s rights and eroding civil liberties. Even with consideration for the abortion subplot, Cleage could easily update the play to modern time without having to change too much around.
In constructing the drama, she closely adheres to Ibsen’s structural modernity, though she makes sharp deviations to fill in her characters’ inner lives with greater clarity. Leland could be the villain of the piece but, even as Cleage makes it clear that she is against his sexual politics–without proselytizing–she also paints him as a fully-fleshed and decent individual who is more a victim of his feelings than a monster inflicting them onto others. Guy and Angel are written similarly. Perhaps we will see those voices rendered onstage someday with the care Cleage employs.