Blues for an Alabama Sky

Goodman Theatre

By Albert Williams

Last season the feisty little Onyx Theatre Ensemble presented a low-budget production called Flyin’ West in the upstairs auditorium of an Edgewater church, a play by a Detroit-bred, Atlanta-based black woman named Pearl Cleage. Telling the tale of African-American women homesteaders in 1890s Kansas, Flyin’ West was the kind of unexpected treasure that regular theatergoers dream of discovering: an offbeat, exciting story packed with strong characters and conveyed in smart dialogue. Cleage’s deeply felt but nondoctrinaire Afrocentric and feminist politics put a stimulating modern spin on the play’s old-fashioned plot–about the women’s struggle to save their farm from scheming white speculators–yet the play was also a credible historical drama.

Now Goodman Theatre–with its sprawling stage, downtown location, and high public profile–is bringing Cleage to the wider audience she deserves: director Chuck Smith’s finely acted, impressively designed production of Blues for an Alabama Sky affirms the playwright’s power to educate while she entertains.

Like Flyin’ West, this play depicts a storied moment in African-American history while exploring the issue of women’s sexual freedom–a theme as contemporary as this year’s news stories about battered wives and abortion-clinic bombings. Set in Harlem in 1930, Blues for an Alabama Sky concerns a network of friends whose emotional intimacy belies their disparate lifestyles. Angel Allen is an erstwhile Cotton Club chorine, recently jilted, fired, and evicted by the mobbed-up Italian nightclub owner who’d been keeping her. Guy Jacobs, who takes her in, is a flamboyantly gay dress designer whose clientele ranges from showgirls to drag queens–and whose social circle includes Langston Hughes and Josephine Baker. He dreams of going to Paris to work for Baker, and he wants to take Angel with him.

Guy’s neighbor, Delia Patterson, is a straitlaced young social worker helping birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger to establish a family-planning clinic in Harlem–despite religious leaders, who view Sanger’s positions as immoral, and black nationalists, who see her goals as genocidal. Working with Delia is Sam Thomas, a middle-aged doctor whose practice consists mainly of helping impoverished, malnourished mothers give birth–or helping them terminate their pregnancies without resorting to back-alley butchery.

As Sam and Delia’s friendship blossoms into love, Angel is courted by Leland Cunningham, a handsome young carpenter (“just like Jesus,” someone notes) from Alabama. Leland is a recent arrival in New York, a proud “God-fearing Christian” haunted by the memory of a wife who died in childbirth; this “gentleman caller” sees in Angel the promise of a second chance at love and fatherhood, and in himself the messiah who can redeem Angel’s promiscuous past. At first attracted by the sophisticated urban lifestyle–he’s thrilled to actually meet a black doctor–Leland is soon repulsed by Delia’s reproductive-rights activism and the “abomination” of Guy’s homosexuality. When flaky, free-living Angel learns she’s pregnant by Leland, the stage is set for a tragic cultural clash.

Blues for an Alabama Sky, like Flyin’ West, uses its characters’ personal crises to reflect a crucial transition in African-American history–in this case, the transformation of the glittering idealism of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s into the disillusion and despair of the Great Depression. August Wilson also employs this narrative strategy, of course, in his cycle of historical dramas–including the brilliant Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which Smith directed at the Goodman last season. But Cleage is no mere Wilson wannabe (though his plays are clearly an influence, as are the southern gothic tragedies of Tennessee Williams and the social-issues soap operas of Sidney Kingsley). Eschewing Wilson’s long storytelling rhapsodies in favor of crackling, sometimes witty, often passionate verbal exchanges, Cleage has a style and viewpoint all her own, as both Flyin’ West and Blues for an Alabama Sky attest.

The theme that links these works is the special challenge black women face as they seek to live their lives independently, free not only of racist repression but of the sexual subjugation traditionally imposed on them by both black and white men. In both plays, the protagonists are emigrants from the south; the female family in Flyin’ West are fleeing the aftereffects of slavery, while in Blues for an Alabama Sky Angel and Guy are both refugees from Savannah drawn to the “New Negro” culture of 20s Harlem. What they’re seeking to escape isn’t so much white oppression as black moral prejudice. “Alabama isn’t just a state, it’s a state of mind,” Guy cautions Angel when she takes up with Leland; she ignores his warning, with disastrous consequences.

Surrounding the somewhat sensational plot is a collage of information about Harlem life in 1930. Felix E. Cochren–a veteran designer whose credits include the Negro Ensemble Company’s landmark premiere of A Soldier’s Play–has created a marvelous set depicting Guy’s and Delia’s apartments, decorated with such evocative trappings as an old-fashioned sewing machine and photos of Josephine Baker. The steel pillars of elevated train tracks frame their apartments, and along the back wall rises a mural of the Harlem skyline, dotted with billboards for theaters, nightclubs, and “cut-rate” drugstores. Between scenes, this backdrop becomes a screen for projected images documenting black life of that era–pictures of Duke Ellington and Marcus Garvey, of chorus lines and breadlines. Sometimes these interludes–accompanied by Rob Milburn’s vintage jazz recordings–go on too long, obviously to allow the actors time to change costumes. But what costumes! Designer Birgit Rattenborg Wise brilliantly evokes the faux-continental flair of the Harlem demimonde in wide-lapeled suits and cream-colored tuxedos, stylish hats and capes, and flamboyantly sexy gowns. (When Leland gives Angel a simple, demure blue-and-white frock as a token of his love, the contrast to her other garments is as good a joke as any of the script’s laugh lines.)

But as rich as the Goodman production is visually, its heart is the acting. Cleage writes in bold strokes that could easily be played to soap-opera excess, but Smith coaxes delicately nuanced characterizations from his engaging cast: Jacqueline Williams as the selfish yet appealing Angel; Dexter Zollicoffer as the limp-wristed, strong-hearted Guy; LaFern Watkins as virginal yet wise Delia; Morocco Omari as the zealous country boy Leland; and Phillip Edward VanLear as the life-loving yet world-weary Sam.

These actors aren’t the Hollywood heavyweights Goodman subscribers have come to expect. There are no Brian Dennehys, Rip Torns, or Robert Kleins here–not even a Phylicia Rashad, who played Angel in the 1995 Atlanta premiere of Blues for an Alabama Sky. Instead there’s an all-local ensemble delivering robust yet textured performances–exactly what Cleage’s sharp-edged, exciting storytelling and Chicago audiences deserve.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still.