No flood of failure or poverty can stamp out dreams, and in “Blues For an Alabama Sky,” bestselling author Pearl Cleage vividly portrays four desperate but determined friends in 1930s Harlem who battle their way to a better life. The play (first produced on Washington’s Arena Stage in 1996, with Phylicia Rashad in the lead), has imperfections, including a few character inconsistencies and leisurely pacing. At its best, however, it’s an extraordinary achievement, written with genuine empathy and performed by a gifted and passionate cast.
The script’s center is Angel (Michelle Griffin), a charismatic, self-destructive Cotton Club singer who loses her job during the Depression and moves in with Guy (Dejon Mayes), a gay designer focused on creating designs for Josephine Baker that will excite her enough to summon him to Paris. Neighbor Delia (Elisa Perry) wants to promote birth control by opening a Margaret Sanger clinic and Sam (Julius Tennon) is a dedicated 40-year-old doctor who drinks too much and declares “let the good times roll” as a balance against the agony of seeing his patients suffer and struggle.
Into their dysfunctional but close existence comes Leland (Dwayne Wycoff), a straitlaced, one-dimensional and harshly homophobic widower from Alabama. Leland falls for Angel, who physically resembles his deceased wife, and she seizes the relationship as a safe harbor from her problems. Without over-emphasizing it, Cleage builds a sense of impending tragedy, because this well-meaning, judgmental stranger is, in Guy’s words, “the kind of small-minded bastard I left Savannah to get away from.” Angel, in her selfish search for security, underestimates the consequences of leading him on and triggers disaster.
What makes this production so effective is a sense of intimate connection between the principals. Neophyte director Monica Garcia handles her actors with assurance, and her staging within the confines of a claustrophobic space has fluidity and non-stop movement.
Michelle Griffin has a visually breathtaking presence and remains mesmerizing, even though there’s a sense of betrayal when writer Cleage presents her as a heroine and then, somewhat abruptly, seeks to turn us against her for her callousness. This change in perspective makes the ending an emotional letdown.
Dejon Mayes, Angel’s savior, blends humor, vulnerability and strength as the positive, garrulous Guy, and Julius Tennon, the doctor, gives the part depth and soul. Dwayne Wycoff is terrifying as a man who expresses well-meaning, mindless belief in rigid standards that rule out tolerance. Elisa Perry’s Delia is convincing, though it seems illogical that she, as birth control advocate, doesn’t speak up in the face of Angel’s repeated pregnancies.
What Cleage points out, with candor and wit, is the necessity for dreams, no matter how improbable. This production reinforces her virtues as a playwright by confronting raw realities, skating past sentimentality and giving us hope without offering any guarantees.
Set and sound designer Joel Daavid creates a Harlem apartment filled with accurate details: Guy’s mannequin, sewing machine, portrait of Josephine Baker, along with shabby rugs, beat-up purple sofa and exposed wall pipe to indicate financial pressure.