Tuesday, February 18, 2020

166 (2019-2020): Review: BLUES FOR AN ALABAMA SKY (seen Februay 16, 2020)

"What Happens to a Dream Deferred?"

A haunting image closes the Keen Company’s satisfactory, if unremarkable, production of Pearl Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky, now on Theatre Row. 

It’s a sultry night in 1930 Harlem and, as she’s done before, Angel (Alfie Fuller, BLKS), a sensual, dark-skinned woman, rebounding from disappointment, sits at a window in her Harlem flat, exposing a burnished shoulder and flipping open a fan. As a predatory shadow falls across her ice-cold eyes, she surveys the street outside, searching for her next opportunity to come along.
John-Andrew Morrison, Alfie Fuller, Sheldon Woodley. All photos: Carol Rosegg.
Cleage’s play, alternately gripping and frustrating, is making its New York premiere 25 years after it had its first production at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre. It starred Phylicia Rashad as Angel, and was followed by multiple other productions, in the U.S. and abroad. Cleage's drama examines the relationships of five characters, just after the height of the Harlem Renaissance. During its glory days, black American artists, like the play’s often referenced Langston Hughes, achieved hitherto unknown heights of accomplishment and recognition. Sadly, their hopeful dreams and aspirations were soon to be shattered by the nightmare of the Great Depression.
Jasminn Johnson, Alfie Fuller, Sheldon Woodley.
When the play begins, Angel, 34, the kept woman of Nick, an Italian gangster, has been betrayed by his marriage to another woman, provoking her to insult him publicly. Not a good idea. The price: her man, her belongings, and her apartment, as well as her job singing at the famed Cotton Club. Also fired is her best friend, Guy (John-Andrew Morrison), elegantly accoutered and openly homosexual, at a time when to be so was to court attacks. Credit Asa Benally for his and all the other nicely designed period costumes. 
It’s in Guy’s Harlem brownstone apartment, where he puts Angel up as she tries to get back on her feet, that most of the action transpires. Scenes are also played across the hall in the apartment of a mutual friend, Delia (Jasminn Johnson)—nicknamed “Deal”—and, using the space fronting the stage, in the street. Unfortunately, You-Shin Chen’s clumsy scenic design fails to solve the complex needs of this arrangement.
John-Andrew Morrison, Jasminn Johnson.
Angel (don’t let the name deceive you) is transactional, a woman who doesn’t shy from deploying her physical charms to gain male support. Speaking of her earlier work as a prostitute, she notes: “It was better than living on the street.” When Leland (Khiry Walker), a sweet but super-conservative, church-going country fellow from Alabama who—seeing her resemblance to his late wife—falls in love and wants to marry her, she agrees, even if she doesn’t love him. He represents the security her joblessness doesn’t provide. Eventually, she’ll do something shocking, not so much the deed itself but its shallow motivation.

Delia is the opposite of the flashy Angel, a frumpy, self-effacing 25-year-old virgin. Her social consciousness, inspired by Margaret Sanger’s birth control movement, helps her convince Harlem bigwigs on the board of the Abyssinian Baptist Church—whose pastor is Adam Clayton Powell, Sr.—to support a family planning center. At the time, fearful black leaders considered birth control a genocidal conspiracy to control the propagation of their race.

Helping to further Delia’s cause is Sam (Sheldon Woodley), a hip 40-year-old physician at Harlem Hospital, a busy baby deliverer who also dabbles in abortions. His emerging love affair with Delia balances that of Leland with Angel until their fates tragically intertwine.
Alfie Fuller, Jasminn Johnson.
Meanwhile, in a play concerned with folks dreaming of a better life, Guy is obsessed with getting to design costumes for the popular black cabaret star, Josephine Baker, in Paris. It’s a goal he speaks of almost as Chekhov’s sisters do about going to Moscow, albeit with a rosier outcome.
Alfie Fuller, Khiry Walker.
In the second act, the two-and-a-half-hour play welds together its significant themes, among them homophobia (Leland calls Guy’s orientation “an abomination”), abortion, birth control, female empowerment, prohibition, joblessness, and the struggle of black artists for recognition. A script largely concerned with character development ultimately piles incident on incident, not always convincingly, to bring about a foregone (if you subscribe to the rule of Chekhov’s gun) melodramatic conclusion.
Sheldon Woodly, Jasminn Johnson.
Cleage’s well-researched writing captures a time and place, given flesh and blood by resonant performances. Fuller is dynamic as the Angel with soiled wings, her tough-as-leather persona a sturdy shield against the struggle for her daily bread. Morrison plays Guy with upbeat confidence but tends to be one-note, while Walker’s Leland epitomizes the innocent, if ignorant, Southern rube. Johnson is appealingly serious as Delia, but her casting creates a problem. She’s so much bigger than Fuller you can’t help but wonder how the latter could fit so perfectly into one of her dresses. Finally, Woodley is a believable Sam, even if it’s hard to believe he’s only 40.
John-Andrew Morrison, Jasminn Johnson.
LA Williams’s staging, which links the scenes with Lindsey Jones’s bluesy music, is vivid enough but doesn’t solve the set’s problems, like the upstage area showing characters going who knows where within the brownstone’s interior. I understood there to have been a picture of Josephine Baker hanging on a wall at stage right but, seated on the extreme left of the auditorium, I had to take it on faith because the sight lines hid it entirely.
Sheldon Woodley, Jasminn Johnson, John-Andrew Morrison, Khiry Walker, Alfie Fuller.
I still give Williams props, however, for that closing image of Angel, sitting at her window, her features heightened by Oona Curley’s lighting, ready to pounce on the next male-ticket to stroll her way.

Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through March 14