410 West 42nd St. between Ninth & Tenth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 14, $28-$65
Keen Company’s revival of Pearl Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky is set in Harlem in 1930, but it’s a tribute to the writing that it feels like it was written in 1930 as well, capturing the unique spirit of that moment in time when the Great Depression, Prohibition, and the Harlem Renaissance merged together. But Cleage actually wrote the play in 1995, and, surprisingly, this is its New York premiere, continuing at Theatre Row through March 14.
You-shin Chen’s effective period set is an open stage linking a pair of small Harlem apartments. Living in one is the openly gay Guy Jacobs (John-Andrew Morrison), a fashion designer trying to make it big by creating costumes for Josephine Baker in Paris, which might just be a pipe dream. His best friend, nightclub chanteuse Angel Allen (Alfie Fuller), moves in with him after her gangster boyfriend dumps her and she gets fired. Across the hall is the more traditional Delia Patterson (Jasminn Johnson), who is seeking the help of Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and the Abyssinian Baptist Church as she works with birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger to start a family planning clinic in the neighborhood, an uphill battle in a Christian community. She falls for Sam Thomas (Sheldon Woodley), a doctor at Harlem Hospital who delivers babies and has, in the past, performed illegal abortions. Meanwhile, after helping Angel home when she was in a drunken stupor, widower Leland Cunningham (Khiry Walker), a younger, narrow-minded man from Tuskegee, Alabama, who has only recently arrived in Harlem, takes a liking to Angel and becomes determined to make her his bride.
The play resonates in today’s sociopolitical climate as it deals with racism, homophobia, unemployment, a woman’s right to choose, religion, and gun violence. “You can sing the blues,” Guy says to Angel early on. “Everybody in Harlem is singing the blues,” Angel retorts.
Fuller (BLKS, Measure for Measure) is magnetic as the wild and woolly, utterly unpredictable Angel, a role originated by Phylicia Rashad and also played by Robin Givens, Jasmine Guy, and Crystal Fox, among others. She also looks fabulous in Asa Benally’s hot, slinky outfits, even when Angel is suffering from a terrible hangover. Morrison is shaky as the flamboyant Guy, appearing lost when other characters are talking, but the rest of the cast is solid under LA Williams’s (Rated Black: An American Requiem by Kareem M. Lucas, Measure for Measure) prudent direction.
Cleage (Mad at Miles: A Black Woman’s Guide to Truth, Flyin’ West), a playwright and novelist who was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, was raised in West Detroit, and has lived in Atlanta for several decades, was inspired to write Blues for an Alabama Sky while driving back from the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery and gazing out the window, marveling at the stars filling the night and wondering what the sky was like in New York amid all the neon and skyscrapers. The play is very much about dreams, both individually and collectively, from people moving to the city to start over to others seeking to make a difference in their community. “I’m tired of Negro dreams,” Angel says. “All they ever do is break your heart.” If Blues for an Alabama Sky is anything, it is certainly heartbreaking.