It’s 1930, in Harlem. A time of heady hope via the great cultural, political and Civil Rights advances of the Harlem Renaissance. But also of great despair, with conservative forces fighting against those changes, and The Depression wreaking economic havoc.
So it’s no surprise, I guess, that the five characters of Pearl Cleage’s 1995 play “Blues for an Alabama Sky” — set in Harlem, in 1930 — seem to be living in both the best and the worst of times. They’ve found themselves — and, in some cases, played a part in creating — a bohemian paradise: one of the character’s favorite sayings is “Let the good times roll!” They interact with history-making people like Langston Hughes, Josephine Baker, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Margaret Sanger, all of whom are discussed but unseen. A large photograph of Baker hangs high on the wall, as if she is a deity watching over them.
They laugh, and drink, and dance. Yet they face struggles, too, and, ultimately, tragedy.
The play is currently being produced at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton. Cleage’s story sometimes seems contrived: The main storyline takes a stunningly harsh turn at the same time that one of the characters is experiencing unbelievably good fortune. Also, the first of the play’s two acts feels a bit aimless. But the actors, directed by Nicole A. Watson, bring their characters to vivid life, the costumes (designed by Sarita P. Fellows) match the characters’ larger-than-life personalities, and evocative jazz and blues music helps create an appropriate mood. It’s hard to imagine any production doing more with the material.
Crystal A. Dickinson plays the central character, Angel, a hard-drinking singer who has just been dumped by her gangster boyfriend —and, because of that, lost the nightclub job that he gave her. She is looking for another job but, this being The Depression, jobs aren’t exactly easy to find. “There are no singing jobs in Harlem. Period,” she says.
Her roommate and unflaggingly supportive best friend, Guy (Kevin R. Free), is a dress designer who is openly gay, and is frequently harassed on the streets because of that. He is having trouble paying the rent, but corresponds with the one-and-only superstar Baker herself, who is living in Paris. With stubborn optimism, he dreams of being hired by her, to make her stage outfits. He likes to pepper his conversation with French phrases, which might seem pretentious if he weren’t so good-natured and lovable.
Guy and Angel’s neighbor Delia (Maya Jackson) is working at Sanger’s new family planning clinic in Harlem. And their friend Sam (Stephen Conrad Moore), who is also Delia’s love interest, is a doctor who likes to party, though he is now approaching middle age and, possibly, getting ready to settle down.
The play’s fifth character, Leland (Brandon St. Clair), is originally from Tuskegee, Alabama, and not particularly interested in Harlem’s cultural offerings and social causes. He is more concerned with finding a church to attend. He has visited the Abyssinian Baptist Church, where Powell preaches, but found it lacking.
“It didn’t feel like church to me,” he says. “The pastor was talking more about this world than he was the next one.”
Leland arrived in town recently, after his wife died in childbirth (their child died, too) and a cousin in Harlem offered him work. A shadow still seems to hang over him. But Angel reminds him of his late wife, and so he is immediately attracted to her. She finds him handsome, but he’s as stolid as she is wild, and she finds it difficult to get to know him (“You’re not a big talker, huh?” she observes).
She puts aside any reservations she may have, though, and flirts with him outrageously — she’s good at that — and begins a relationship. She feels that she needs someone to take care of her now that her singing career has hit a dead end. So he’s come along at just the right time.
Can they work out their differences? Will Guy finally convince Josephine Baker of his talent? And what about Sam and Delia?
If these questions make “Blues for an Alabama Sky” sounds like a soap opera … well, you could argue that Cleage’s vision tends to be more melodramatic than realistic. But in Angel and Guy, in particular, she has created two remarkable, complicated, intriguing characters, and it is a pleasure to be able to spend a few hours in their presence.
The McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton will present “Blues for an Alabama Sky” through May 28. Visit mccarter.org.
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