Pearl Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky, recently produced by the N.C. Central University Department of Theatre, is set in 1930s Harlem, as the Great Depression was stalling the 1920s African-American cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance and making things (as one of the characters says) “tough all over.” In this “two hours’ traffic,” we meet five 1930s African-Americans.
Angel Allen (a beamingly charismatic Shani Roy) has just experienced serious setbacks — she lost her job as a singer at the Cotton Club, she learned that her “boyfriend” is marrying someone else, and (therefore) she is in need of a new place to stay. Her only dream is to be a blues singer. If she continues her search, will she ever get her big break?
Meanwhile, Guy Jacobs (a tastefully flamboyant Dequarius Jackson), a costume designer who refers to himself as “a notorious Homosexual,” is experiencing setbacks of his own. However, he does take Angel in as a roommate after helping her home in the wake of the inevitable heavy drinking following her having been fired and displaced. Guy’s big dream is to go to France and design gowns for Josephine Baker. Will this dream come true? And will he go alone?
Meanwhile, Delia Patterson (a determined, big-hearted Tiana Patterson-Pollard), who lives in the apartment across the hall from Guy’s, is trying to set up Harlem’s first birth-control clinic. Dr. Sam Thompson (a passionate, yet level-headed Paul Daran) is prepared to help her in this endeavor. Do we detect a bit of lovey-dovey chemistry between these two early on? If so, where can it lead?
Leland Cunningham (judiciously played as a fish-out-of-water by Foye D. Thompson, III) is new in town, having recently arrived from Alabama. He helps with Guy’s rescue of Angel in the opening scene and subsequently becomes an important piece in the puzzle that her life has become. As might be expected, his conservative (rural Alabama fundamentalist Christian) values quickly put him at odds with the realities of the more bohemian culture into which he has inserted himself. Will he survive? Will anybody?
Director Kenneth E. Hinton is a member of the Theatre Department faculty at NCCU and at Shaw University, and his role as an educator shines through in his direction of this piece — we got a very definite feeling that every member of the cast had a strong grasp of his/her character’s “place” in the play’s setting.
Run-time (including intermission) is close to 2½ hours, but the swift, even-keeled pacing, along with the captivating nature of both the subject matter and the performances, makes it seem much shorter.
Set designer Tab May has recreated the living rooms of two adjacent upscale 1930s Harlem apartments. A few nice touches include the dress dummy and portrait of Josephine Baker in Guy’s apartment (courtesy, perhaps, of prop designer/set decorator Nadia Bodie-Smith).
Light designer Kendall Clark enhances the changing moods of the piece with various shades of different coloring in the wash as well varying the intensity of the lights at appropriate times. Special lighting extends the playing area from the interior of the apartments outside to a number of street scenes.
Costume designer Pamela Bond earns an A+ for the many-and-varied sets of clothing sported by these characters. The characters’ tastes in clothing are as individual as the characters themselves.
From the Department of Picky-Picky:
- On one occasion, the transition from Guy’s apartment to a street scene was not as clear as it could have been.
- The dialogue establishes that Sam is “middle-aged,” but Paul Dargan’s makeup did not age him quite that much.
- The outfit Angel wore in the first scene (when she came home from her last night singing at the Cotton Club) was very realistic and true to the time-and-place, but it seemed incomplete without stockings (which, after this scene, would have been optional). Likewise, Delia’s “Sunday best” could have been similarly enhanced.
And a quick observation: The preshow, intermission, and incidental music was well-chosen.
We have grown accustomed to well-produced shows of cultural and historical significance at NCCU, and Blues for an Alabama Sky is no exception.
[RUN HAS CONCLUDED.]
Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.