Three prominent regional theaters — Atlanta’s Alliance Theater, D.C.’s Arena Stage and the Hartford (Conn.) Stage Company — have collaborated on a worthy new drama by play-wright Pearl Cleage. Arena is the last of the three to present the play, which features actress Phylicia Rashad in the lead role.
Action occurs in a Harlem brownstone in 1930, at the end of the Harlem Renaissance. The mercurial ensemble includes a gay designer (Mark Young), a fading diva of the Cotton Club (Rashad), a compassionate physician (Wendell Wright), an activist neighbor (Deidrie Henry) and a straight-laced suitor (Hassan El-Amin). As each busily pursues a career, a drama unfolds and violently erupts around the issue of birth control.
Cleage offers in “Alabama” a compelling insight into personalities and prejudices. She explores a wide range of human emotions, from the infectious highs of an eternal optimist to the lows of the exploited and downtrodden. There is much to admire, especially dialogue that is lively and succinct, and an engrossing story told with passion. It is relevant to today’s audiences and can be produced economically.
But the play also strains to maintain believability, awkwardly telegraphs its intentions, and loses its edge at the finale. The pivotal relationship between the antagonist and the singer is only credible to a point, while the climax could be more dramatic.
Within the ensemble, Young makes the most of the play’s most colorful role, a character who revels in his gay lifestyle, carries the load of comic relief and stoically copes with the cruelties of discrimination. Rashad, is a solid anchor in the demanding part of a burned-out individual whose enviable qualities are undermined by a self-destructive bent. Henry is strong as the neighbor crusading for a family planning clinic, although both she and Rashad have trouble projecting to the modest reaches of Arena’s intimate Kreeger Theater. El-Amin is a study in simmering rage, and Wright’s wily doctor is an asset.