Review: Blues for an Alabama Sky brings today’s hot topics to a steamy summer in Depression-era Harlem

Sam, Angel and Delia, played by Ryan George, Tsilala Brock, and Jasminn Johnson, in Barrington Stage Company's production of "Blues for an Alabama Sky," written by Pearl Cleage. All photos by Daniel Rader.
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It’s the summer of 1930, and it’s hot and sultry uptown, with the Harlem Renaissance in full swing. The Depression is taking its toll, and everyone is dreaming of something big. Guy, a costume designer, dreams of going to Paris to fashion gowns for Josephine Baker, and of living  in Paris, where being Black and gay is no impediment to success and happiness. His best friend and “third cousin” Angel, with whom he shares a painful past, dreams of being Josephine Baker and finding some security and stability in her life. Their across-the-hall neighbor Delia, an acolyte of Margaret Sanger, dreams of opening a family planning clinic in Harlem, with the blessings of the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell. And Sam, a doctor who delivers babies at Harlem Hospital…well, Doc is dreaming of Delia and of settling down from his wild ways. And—even though Langston Hughes is and unseen presence in the action— some of these dreams are not deferred; they are actively being pursued.

It’s also the Prohibition era, but that doesn’t seem to matter much, as is evident when we meet Guy and Angel stumbling home in the night. She’s just lost her man—the never-seen gangster Nick—her job as a singer at the Cotton Club (after going off on Nick, who runs the joint, from the stage), and her home—the ritzy apartment where Nick has kept her in high style— and she’s had quite a few too many. As Guy—who we later learn has also been fired for taking Angel’s part—is helping her back to his apartment, a mysterious stranger shows up to lend a hand, then disappears into the night. He turns up back at Guy’s place the next day, ostensibly to return the scarf Angel has dropped in her drunken state, and we find out that he’s dreaming too—about his wife, Anna, his childhood sweetheart, who died giving birth to their son, who also died. Angel looks an awful lot like Anna, and he is set on winning her heart and making her over in Anna’s devoutly Christian image.

Angel (Tsilala Brock) is flattered by the attentions of Leland (DeLeon Dallas).

His name is Leland Cunningham, and to get away from the pain of his losses, he’s recently come North from Tuskegee, Alabama, to stay with his cousin in Harlem. Despite his protestations, Angel insists on teasingly calling him “Alabama.” Leland is deeply earnest and conservative, doesn’t much like being teased, makes his living as a carpenter, comes off as naive and dull among this set of sophisticated friends, and he carries a gun. As all good theater-goers know, if a gun shows up on the stage, it’s going to be fired before the play is over. In that every other character offends Leland’s God-fearing sensibilities, a great deal of the tension in this drama stems from wondering whom Leland will end up shooting.

The full cast of Barrington Stage Company’s production of “Blues for an Alabama Sky,” directed by Candis C. Jones.

Will it be Guy, who has to spell out the obvious to oblivious Leland—that he is not a rival for Angel’s affections because he is flamboyantly, unabashedly homosexual? The times are changing in Harlem; a new breed of angry young men have begun to harass and assault gay men on the streets, and Leland seems to have fallen in with these thugs. Fortunately, Guy is a fighter who can take care of himself. 

Will it be Delia, whose advocacy for women’s bodily autonomy is something Leland views as against God’s directives to be fruitful and multiply? Delia’s plans for a family planning clinic that will teach about and distribute birth control have been facing resistance within Harlem from people who are suspicious of Sanger’s motives. 

Will it be Angel, who comes to view Leland as her last chance for survival after what she thinks will be an audition to be a singer at another mobster’s club is actually an audition for her to be that other mobster’s mistress? She seems ready to give up her dreams and give up her lifestyle… until she doesn’t.  Or will it be Doc, who, in addition to delivering babies has also been known to help women out of tough situations? 

In Barrington Stage Company’s production of Pearl Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky, directed by Candis C. Jones, Brandon Alvión brings winning determination, hope, and resilience to the role of Guy. He plays the character as the positive, supportive, protective best friend we would all want to have. Jasminn Johnson shines as Delia; she conveys how this sincere, upstanding character embraces faith and a bit of prudishness while maintaining her fun-loving spirit and commitment to helping women and building a stronger community. She and Ryan George, who plays Sam with intelligence, a sly smile, a heart of gold, and an up-for-anything attitude, have the audience rooting for them to get together, and we’re gratified when they finally—tenderly—do. 

Leland and Sam have a conversation on the street.

DeLeon Dallas’s Leland is deliberately slow in movement and thought. He’s a large, physically imposing character who threateningly looms over the other characters. His Leland comes off as something of a country rube, a bit dense in not being able to size up the dynamics or situation he has entered into, but also determined to get what he wants when he decides he wants it. He generates some sympathy when—after learning that Angel has lost her clothes along with that swanky apartment—he buys her a simple, modest dress that is definitely not her style, but along with that sympathy, the audience bristles as how  he is trying to force Agnel into his vision of what a woman should be.. 

As Angel, the central character in this play, Tsilala Brock affectingly portrays a woman running out of options, becoming increasingly desperate as her dreams and delusions fade. It’s a tough role, as—like Leland—the character is not entirely sympathetic. Her rough past has rendered her opportunistic, and at times, there’s a bit of Blanche Dubois in her as her world falls apart. 

Guy (Brandon Alvión) shares some good news with Sam and Delia.

The action takes place inside and on the stoop of a Harlem building with Guy and Delia’s cramped apartments on either side. The set, designed by Sydney Lynne, is busy with homey details, including tight kitchens, comfy chairs, and even Guy’s sewing machine and basket of fabrics. The costumes, designed by Danielle Preston, help define the characters, from Guy’s flashy attire to Leland’s somber dark suit; from Delia’s modest outfits to Angel’s slinky gowns. It’s a key plot point when Angel appears in that plain dress that Leland has given her, albeit gussied up with some decorative details. The lighting, designed by Adam Honoré, contributes atmospheric verisimilitude, lending steaminess to the hot summer days in which the action takes place.

The production was strong overall, though there were a few moments that dragged a bit. Jones, the director, did an excellent job of bringing out the issues that continue to plague society to this day—homophobia, religious fundamentalism, abortion, a woman’s right to choose, and the expectation of women to trade on their sexuality to get ahead—without banging us over the head with them. Pearl Cleage’s play was first produced in 1995. It’s stunning that we are still grappling with these matters; seeing this play confirms that society has moved backward instead of achieving progress.

Barrington Stage Company’s production of Blues for an Alabama Sky runs through August 5 at the Boyd-Quinson Stage in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

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