Pearl Cleage’s play “Blues for an Alabama Sky,” a Keen Company production directed by La Williams and getting a New York showing for the first time, grips one’s attention throughout thanks to some smart writing, realistic African-Americans and first-rate performances. But the playwright eventually takes a tragic soap opera turn based on a temper-fueled confession that the leading female character is too smart and calculating to have done. Still, one can’t take eyes off of everyone and all that’s happening.
The setting is an apartment building in 1930 Harlem during the depression and the Harlem Renaissance period. Angel Allen, given a superb, rangy performance by Alfie Fuller, is first seen coming home drunk, escorted by Guy Jacobs (John-Andrew Morrison), the flamboyant gay costume designer who has sheltered her in his apartment. He is helped by a stranger, whom we later learn is Leland Cunningham (Khiry Walker), a straight-laced, conservative type who hails from Alabama.
Angel has been fired from her cabaret chorus job after she lashed out at the married Italian lover who has dumped her. Badmouthed for her behavior, she has no new job prospects and feels thoroughly rejected and down in the dumps. But Guy, himself fired from his designer job for defending her, tries to boost her morale by promising to take her along to Paris if his dream comes true. His vision is to design costumes for the famous Josephine Baker, the African-American star who has been all the rage in France. Guy is often hilarious as a larger-than-life figure given great lines by the playwright, and Morrison consistently makes the most of the role.
Sheldon Woodley plays Sam Thomas, Harlem Hospital doctor, who falls in love with the neighbor across the hall from Guy’s apartment—the very warm, friendly and likable Delia Patterson (Jasminn Johnson). We watch their romance slowly progress. Delia is a a social worker enthusiastically working at a Margaret Sanger family planning clinic.
Meanwhile, Leland comes around to introduce himself and see how Angel is recovering from the drunken stupor he had seen her in. They are total opposites. He is outraged by Guy being gay, and he recoils at the idea of anyone having an abortion in the wake of his having lost a wife and baby son at childbirth. But he becomes ardent in his romantic pursuit of Angel, who resists but begins to see him as a meal ticket out of her state of affairs and also is basically flattered by his perception of her as a worthwhile woman. We can, of course, spot trouble ahead for these very believable characters. All of this includes occasional references to the Harlem Renaissance scene, with such name dropping as that of Adam Clayton Powell and writer and poet Langston Hughes.
I’m not going to be a spoiler by giving details, but I must tell you that after Angel has concocted a story in the midst of a crisis and a fresh opening to expand her life, she blurts out a mean-spirited confession that is out of character and seems only written as a gimmick to serve the explosive direction that the play takes. One would have to regard her at that point a horrible person and foolish as well, and that is not the portrait of her until then.
But that’s an assessment of the play plot-wise. The fact remains that “Blues for an Alabama Sky” is well worth seeing for the other reasons stated above. At Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street. Reviewed February 20, 2020.