Harlem in the 1920s and ’30s is usually portrayed as a jumping, joyful place. But the Great Depression hit it hard, foiled the flappers, and made work scarce, no matter how talented its denizens were. Pearl Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky explores this baleful side of Harlem, as four friends drink, giggle, and shimmy their way through a series of events that have a deep personal effect on all of them.
Guy Jacobs teeters on the cusp of a wonderful life. He is pitching costume ideas to legendary performer Josephine Baker. If she hires him, he’ll be able to take his dream trip to Paris with best friend Angel Allen.
With a set-up like that, you just know something’s going to go horribly wrong for these fun-loving Francophiles. The question is, who will screw up their dreams? Will it be Delia Patterson, crusading for birth control and mooning after Pastor Adam Powell? Or the exuberant Dr. Sam Thomas, who works and parties so much that he falls asleep in the middle of a conversation? Or maybe it will be newcomer Leland Cunningham, the Alabama transplant who carries a gun in his pocket and is very pleased to see Angel.
Nikkita Donyal Johnson’s character of Angel is vain, selfish, and childlike, but she holds the audience’s sympathy throughout the show. Angel is an opportunist showgirl who will never be a great blues singer, yet has all the makings of a gangster’s moll. Johnson’s best scenes are shared with Keith H. Alston (Mahalia), who plays Leland. As lust blooms between the two, they trade some wonderful banter, Cleage’s real forte. Alston hams up a couple of moments but he’s generally credible as a widower looking for someone to take care of, whether she wants it or not.
Michelle Powe (Crowns) gets some well-deserved laughs, adding lots of energy to Delia, a part that’s written as a fairly straight-laced dame. Powe plays her as a thoughtful, caring, and dignified woman.
Joey Greene is also impressive as Dr. Thomas. Although he is soft spoken and hard to hear at times, he cuts a likeable, rakish figure, and when he gets into a dangerous situation, the audience cares about his fate.
As Guy, Ernest Brown II (Bubblin’ Brown Sugar) is the real star of the show and the main reason to see it. Like Powe, he gives his character more subtlety than lesser actors would. Brown adds extra layers to his part of the gaudy gay costumier who longs to ride Josephine Baker’s fantails. He delivers a genuinely funny performance with lots of memorable gestures and moments.
Dr. Ade Ofunniyin’s set successfully reflects different characters — Delia’s room is fairly simple and economically decorated, with a small table and two wooden chairs. Guy’s is much fancier, draped with feather boas and bolts of cloth ready to wrap around his visitors. The costumes also help to establish the era with just the right amount of élan. Along with Brown, they give the play a sense of fun. Suffice it to say, gold lamé is involved.
The ’30s milieu is only disrupted by Leland’s gun, which has a bright red tip. We don’t expect complete authenticity in theater, and we understand why the actors don’t want to be running around with a realistic gun. But after all the attention to costume detail, this modern toy is distracting.
Any other faults in the show can be traced to the writing. There are solid themes involved, and it’s great to see Art Forms tackling important subjects like birth control, abortion, and homophobia. However, there’s no real depth, and the story fizzles out at the end. Still, this production shows the company’s potential with assured direction from veteran Art Gilliard and some confident performances by its actors.