By Ian Rigg
Court Theatre’s Blues for an Alabama Sky is simply top-notch theatre. Heralding the heritage of the Harlem Renaissance, this terrific production is not to be missed.
The seminal 1995 play (with music) by Pearl Cleage tells the tale of four friends in Harlem, New York, living, laughing and struggling in the summer of 1930. Angel, a nightclub singer recently out of work, crashes with her best friend Guy, a charismatic costume designer with grand dreams of Paris. They live across the hall from Delia, a more pragmatic and political pal working to open a family planning clinic in Harlem, and are frequently visited by Sam, the local obstetrician they lovingly dub “Doc.” They revel and rally in the face of economic and social woe and experience even further mirth and malice when a stranger from Alabama blows into their lives. This timely and tremendous production proves despair cannot crush dreams, and asks audiences to learn “one of the secrets of life…Learn to spot the romance.”
Director Ron OJ Parson leads a team of outstanding artists, who have found that romance. They paint a phenomenal portrait of American art’s most fertile period, splashing their canvas with care.
The top-notch scenic design of Linda Buchanan and the impeccable costume design of Rachel Healy give the production an incredible sense of time and place. Sketches of costumes accompany dazzling prototypes, flanking an idol to Josephine Baker. Characters gambol about in plaid suits and pearls. While the audience never sees the outside of the ingenious double-room design of two neighbors and their hallway, they are no doubt awash in the era. This epoch of jazz and was clearly carefully researched by dramaturg Martine Kei Green-Rogers, who even procured a functional vintage sewing machine.
Keith Parham’s clever lighting design allows the hours to pass by, days bleeding into nights with our partying protagonists. Sound designer Joshua Horvath weaves a web of ambient street sounds and cicada chirps to give a further sense of summer in the city. With these astounding artists working in tandem, the portrait is complete.
Parson has clearly captured what the play is all about; it’s a human treatise on a tumultuous time, with ripples to the present. What’s more important: dreams, or survival? Do people bunker down and stay, or leave to find a better life? Do people change? Can they? Parson and company tackle these ontological debates and more, but in a very organic way.
Blues for an Alabama Sky isn’t just profound and dramatic; it’s hilarious (much like life itself). For all of the play’s wordplay, Parson is unafraid to use silence; some of the production’s most potent moments come from silent vignettes where characters work or relax unobserved (and the actors flesh these out beautifully). With dynamic blocking and a focus on relationships, Parson deftly directs his cast, coaxing out powerful performances. Blues for an Alabama Sky is an acting masterclass.
Celeste M. Cooper blends a deep concern for those around her with a sense of duty and a delightful inexperience as Delia. Audiences will be enamored with her quirky sheepishness, roused by her righteousness, and devastated by her dramatic chops.
James Vincent Meredith is the perfect actor to play Sam. With a rich voice, he is able to quickly switch from commanding charm to stern reason. The lovable old rogue is no posturing moralist: he’s the bedrock of this beautiful friendship.
Geno Walker is an unassuming powerhouse. His Leland is a southern gentleman whose genteel manner belies deep-seated ignorance and spiteful wrath. The truest testament to his gripping performance is the conviction in his eyes that he’s the good guy.
Toya Turner’s Angel is selfish, histrionic, unapologetic and utterly glorious. She is the production’s lynchpin, the star around whom the show revolves, and yet she’s its most static character. She’s doing whatever she feels she has to do in order to survive, yet retains the audience’s sympathy and ardor no matter what. That’s thanks to Turner’s bombastic, bitter, sensitive and soaring portrayal.
Sean Parris is simply outstanding as Guy. Impossibly cool, effortlessly funny, dapper and debonair, he exudes charisma in every instant of his flashy yet nuanced performance. Talking the talk, walking the walk, donning the dashing clothes, Parris visibly dives headfirst into the character; he’s even learned how to sew. While each character stands as a bastion of their own rendition of morality, the best lines hail from him. Audiences will want to watch him for days.
Equally excellent in their own right, these incredible actors are unmatched as an ensemble. The connection and chemistry between them crackles. The occasionally fraught friendship is palpable. The comedic scenes split sides, and the dramatic scenes split tears. It’s a window into a world that’s as delightful and as dreadful as our own.
The only thing as remarkable as Blues For An Alabama Sky’s quality is its urgency. Though the production takes place in 1930, it could just as easily occur today. In a time when the National Endowment for the Arts and human rights are both poised to be stripped away, here comes a beautiful piece of art about the agency of women and the right to be one’s self, free of fear. A Bertolt Brecht quote comes to mind:
“In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.”
Court Theatre’s Blues for an Alabama Sky sings out, proving that even in the dark times, the good times still roll.
Court Theatre invites audiences to spot the romance at “Blues for an Alabama Sky,” through February 12 at the Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. More information and tickets are available here.