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‘Blues for an Alabama Sky’ at Port City Playhouse

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Blues for an Alabama Sky at Port City Playhouse: A Kiss to Build a Dream On: After the Harlem Renaissance

The gifted and much admired Pearl Cleage is a poetic playwright.  Her dialogue shines with wit, imagery, and pathos.The Port City Playhouse has given her work the exquisitely detailed and imaginative production it deserves. Producer Sydney-Chanele Dawkins, Director Eleanor Tapscott, the cast and all involved with the project have created a rare and many-layered treasure. Cleage, an award-winning playwright and best-selling novelist, has given us a captivating portrait of a world which is profoundly relevant today.

Sam Thomas (De(Jeanette Horne}, Guy Jacobs (Malcolm), and Delia Patterson (Christine Wells). Photo by Michael deBlois.

Sam Thomas (De(Jeanette Horne}, Guy Jacobs (Malcolm), and Delia Patterson (Christine Wells). Photo by Michael deBlois.

The play takes place in the aftermath of the dazzling Harlem Renaissance, in 1930.  Luck has suddenly run out.  Our heroine, Angel (Lolita-Marie), is a nightclub singer who has just been fired. Angel lives her with her gay best friend and protector, Guy (Malcolm Lee), a talented designer who keeps sending his costumes to Josephine Baker in Paris, hoping to go to Paris one day and live la vie en rose. In the apartment next door is the good-hearted, slightly shy social worker, Delia (Christine Wells), who earnestly suggests to Angel that she learn to type. Angel is understandably unenthusiastic (are men ever advised to learn to type?) but seems to blossom in the warmth of their friendship. Sam (DeJeanette Horne), an overworked but fun-loving doctor, enjoys Angel’s innate sense of drama, and appreciates the kindness and loyalty of Guy.

The world premiere of the play took place at the Alliance Theatre Company in Atlanta, Georgia, under Artistic Director Kenny Leon. Director Eleanor Tapscott writes perceptively about this era in history. “During the Harlem Renaissance,” she writes, “black communities in Harlem and around the nation established their own identities, questioned the status quo and debated ideas about how to advance the race.” On the other hand, there were all the problems we face today– “raging unemployment; homelessness; the fight for reproductive rights; rampant homophobia and brutal gay-bashing.” Into the troubled world of Angel, Guy, Delia and Sam comes Leland (Mack Leamon), a young African-American from Alabama, who has suffered a traumatic loss and whose social views are conservative and also sadly relevant today. He is a devout Christian, believes homosexuality is an abomination, hates abortion, and falls in love with Angel despite their vastly differing lifestyles. Angel does not fall in love with him; they are not exactly soul-mates; but it is touching to watch his attempts to please her and win her love. Leamon’s performance is particularly strong when he describes the anguish of losing his wife and son in childbirth.

Lolita-Marie, who is radiant and powerful throughout, beautifully modulates her reactions to him. It is an outstanding star performance. Echoing the developing romance between Angel and Leland is the growing attraction between the doctor, Sam, and Delia, the delightfully nervous and somehow endearing social worker. Christine Wells and DeJeanette Horne are both picture-perfect in their roles. Horne is especially compelling when he tells Leland “I’m not God.” Wells has the gift of making us care about her character as she doggedly attempts, with the help of the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., to establish a birth control clinic in Harlem. Malcolm Lee as Guy captures all the flair and humor of the dialogue with a sure, comic touch. Like all the characters, he is a complex, yet lovable human being.

Angel Allen (Lolita-Marie). Photo by Michael deBlois.

Angel Allen (Lolita-Marie). Photo by Michael deBlois.

Set design and painting (Michael de Blois) are simple yet uniquely suited to the production. There is an ancient radio; a picture of Josephine Baker; and one of Guy’s costumes draped carefully around a mannequin. The costume design (Nicole Zuchetto) is evocative and brings out interesting aspects of the characters. Angel wears a purple kimono in the beginning, which brings out her dramatic flair. Delia wears a series of deliberately unimaginative suits; although she looks lovely, she explains that social workers can’t dress too flamboyantly or they will scare people. Light design by Sean Doyle is subtle and particularly appropriate. David Correia (Sound Design) has chosen some particularly apposite music for the production, featuring Billie Holliday among others, which underlines the poetic yet somehow jazzy and heartbroken tone of the play. Cleage skillfully weaves a tapestry of a forgotten world.

Langston Hughes, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Marcus Garvey, and other historical figures are mentioned just enough to enrich the context of the piece without overwhelming the central conflicts of the characters. All these people have intuitions of another life, a better life, but except for Guy, seem unable to achieve it. Angel herself has been driven deep into her own preoccupations by adversity; she is unable to see beyond her own pain.  Guy’s compassion has only been enhanced by his struggles. As for Delia, she exemplifies the beauty of the individual who sincerely and deeply wants to help her community.

In an interview with Teresa Wiltz of The Root (4/10/14), Pearl Cleage herself best explains the power of her writing.  “Sometimes at my readings, women come to me and they’re in despair of the messiness of their lives. I tell them, ‘Your 20s are going to be messy; 30s are going to be messy. Life is going to be messy when you try to figure out how to be a good person, but if you keep moving forward and try to get to the truth, then things will be much more than what you  want {them] to be.” Or, as she says in another interview (Arlene McKanic, The Root, 5/31/10): “Everybody, be optimistic! Do your work! Don’t get distracted!”  As Dr. Sam likes to say, “Let the good times roll!”

Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

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Blues for an Alabama Sky plays through May 17, 2014 at Port City Playhouse – 1819 North Quaker Lane, in Alexandria, VA. For tickets, purchase them at the box office or online.

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