Flyin’ West

WHEN Through 4/8: Wed-Thu 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM, Sun 2:30 and 7:30 PM

WHERE Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis

PRICE $36-$54

INFO 773-753-4472

Blues for an Alabama Sky

WHEN Through 4/19: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM

WHERE Victory Gardens Greenhouse Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln

PRICE $18-$22

INFO 773-871-3000

“I purposely people my plays with fast-talking, quick-thinking black women since the theatre is, for me, one of the few places where we have a chance to get an uninterrupted word in edgewise,” wrote Atlanta playwright Pearl Cleage in the 2006 anthology Women in American Theatre. The heroines of her Flyin’ West and Blues for an Alabama Sky–which both opened here in strong revivals last weekend–are emigrants from the jim crow south who envision black utopias free of violence and sexual subjugation. Yet Cleage, a self-described “child of the Black Arts Movement and the Woodstock Generation,” knows how to connect with everyone. Her plays are entertaining, potent tragicomedies that fuse lessons in black history with boldly drawn characters, crackling dialogue, suspenseful plots, tender romance, explosive violence, and a rich vein of droll humor.

Flyin’ West, which put Cleage on the map when it premiered at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre Company in 1992, takes place in 1898 in the black farming community of Nicodemus, Kansas. The play’s all-female household, a sisterhood without genetic bonds, is made up of migrants from Memphis, part of the great exodus from the south after the collapse of reconstruction and the resurgence of white supremacy. Stubborn, rifle-totin’ Sophie is determined to keep Nicodemus from falling into the hands of white land speculators; bookish, genteel Fannie is engaged in a tentative courtship with lumbering, good-natured neighbor Wil; and elderly Miss Leah shares heart-wrenching tales of the brutality endured by female slaves, who were not only field hands and kitchen workers but breeders of babies to sell. The trio are visited by Fannie’s delicate sister, Minnie, who lives in London with her husband, Frank, the self-described mulatto son of a former slave and her master. Superficially cultivated (he professes to be a poet and spouts verse by Paul Laurence Dunbar), Frank simmers with a poisonous self-hatred, expressing his rage by disparaging other blacks and abusing his wife. He’s returned to America to claim part of his dead father’s fortune; when that effort fails, he turns his attention to Minnie’s deed to the farm, defying Sophie’s passionate campaign to keep Nicodemus under black control.

With its story of women trying to protect their property from a mustachioed villain, Flyin’ West is in part a playful homage to 19th-century melodrama. But one of the delights of Cleage’s work is the way she toys with traditional expectations to promote her unapologetic feminist, black-nationalist vision. Her damsel in distress needs no white knight to save her; when the chips are down, it’s Leah who comes to the rescue in a comically macabre climax.

Court Theatre programmed Flyin’ West as a project for director Ron O.J. Parson–who also helmed the play’s 1996 Chicago premiere by the short-lived Onyx Theatre Ensemble. He understands its rich mixture of philosophical storytelling and gripping action, and his superb production features incandescent performances by Cheryl Lynn Bruce as the wise, matriarchal Leah and TaRon Patton as the tough yet vulnerable Sophie; the wonderful smile that unexpectedly blossoms on Sophie’s clenched fist of a face is unforgettable. Fine support comes from Tyla Abercrumbie as Fannie, Monet Butler as Minnie, Brandon Miller as Frank, and Greg Hollimon as Wil. Set designer Jack Magaw re-creates an A-frame cabin surrounded by cornstalks and an open sky, and Josh Horvath and Ray Nardelli’s incidental music combines blues melodies with string-quartet instrumentation, underlining the characters’ clashing responses to American racism–emigrating to Europe or flying west.

Cleage’s 1995 play Blues for an Alabama Sky also focuses on a family linked by shared joy and pain rather than biology. The setting is 1930 Harlem, where blues singer Angel and her gay “cousin” Guy–both for-mer prostitutes in Savannah–have moved to take part in the 1920s Harlem Renaissance. They share a small apartment and work at the Cotton Club, Angel as a showgirl, Guy as a costume designer. Their neighbor Delia is a shy, straitlaced, but open-minded social worker and advocate of Margaret Sanger’s family-planning crusade. Working with Sanger to open a clinic in Harlem, Delia turns for support to Sam, a world-weary doctor who’s devoted his life to helping poor black women give birth to healthy babies–or terminate their pregnancies.

The Jazz Age flowering of cultural and sexual freedom has crumbled under the weight of the Great Depression, and Guy (who moves in an elite homosexual circle that includes poet Langston Hughes) now dreams of moving to “gay Paree” to work for his idol, expatriate cabaret star Josephine Baker. Angel wants a man to take care of her and agrees to marry Leland–a handsome, decent but tightly wound young fellow from Tuskegee. Leland, whom Angel nicknames “Alabama,” is grieving over the recent deaths of his wife and son during childbirth. He and Angel see in each other the promise of a second chance, but Leland’s fundamentalist Christian values put him on a collision course with Angel’s freethinking circle.

Eclipse’s intimate non-Equity rendition of Blues for an Alabama Sky–the first show in its 2007 season of Cleage scripts–doesn’t match the power or scope of the Goodman’s 1998 Chicago premiere of the play. But despite initially spotty pacing and some clunky blocking, Steven Fedoruk’s staging gathers considerable emotional force thanks to intense, honest performances by TayLar as Angel, Charlette Speigner as Delia, Alfred Kemp as Guy, Sean Nix as Sam, and the remarkable Terrance Watts as Leland. A well-chosen soundtrack by sound designer Victoria DeIorio complements the play’s alternately boisterous and melancholy moods.

“Dream-singers, / Story-tellers, / Loud laughers in the hands of Fate– / My people,” Langston Hughes wrote in his 1922 poem “Laughers.” Cleage’s characters, like their creator, are tellers of stories and singers of dreams, which lead to broken hearts and new beginnings, untimely deaths and unlimited hopes for new life.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Michael Brosilow, Betsy Lent.