Harlem in transition

Publication Date: Friday Sep 12, 1997

Harlem in transition

TheatreWorks' "Blues for an Alabama Sky" captures the spirit of a time and a people

by Gregg Andrew Hurwitz

Like the music of its title, "Blues For An Alabama Sky" is soulful, uplifting, sometimes haunting. The most recent play from Pearl Cleage ("Flyin' West," "Chain," "Late Bus to Mecca"), Blues evokes the ambiance of Harlem as the Great Depression begins to invade the festive edges of the Harlem Renaissance. Wistful, sensuous, at times screamingly funny, "Blues For An Alabama Sky" runs the gamut from comic to poignant without tripping all over itself to get there.

At the center of the play is Angel, a down-on-her-luck Cotton Club singer torn between her need for independence and her desire to be taken care of by a Sugar Daddy. She lives with Guy Jacobs, an animated homosexual costume designer who lives his life in perennial hope of being beckoned to Paris by his idol, Josephine Baker. Sam, their jovial and good-natured physician friend, begins a romance with the dowdy and girlishly serious Delia across the hall. The careful world these four friends have constructed amidst the changing winds of Harlem is threatened when Angel begins a relationship with Leland Cunningham, a young man from Alabama. Leland's homespun Christian ways run counter to the more progressive social currents running through the streets of Harlem; indeed, his bumbling and earnest style strikes a dangerous contrast to the irreverency of the other characters, setting them on a collision course.

Cleage has that rare and most valuable blessing a playwright can have: a deep, abiding adoration and respect for her characters, each of whom she invests with a distinctive voice. She pays loving attention to the nuances of each character, treating even Leland (who within the world of the play is socially backward and politically offensive) with an uncompromising fairness, enabling us to feel the vulnerable wistfulness beneath his exterior. The banter has a wonderfully authentic cadence. There is a smoothness to the production that is testimonial both to the writing and the excellent direction of Harry Elam. Elam draws out the subtleties of gesture and timing from the characters with expert sharpness.

Kelly Taffe is fantastic as Angel, capturing the character right down to her stuttering walk, her sideways looks, her delighted shrieks. "I'm sorry in about 20 different ways," Angel tells us near the end of the play, "and I don't give a damn about any of them." Guy is a character more complicated than he first appears; not only is he present for comic relief, but he also ensures that we don't lose ourselves on the side of sentimentality. Though he is a dreamer of the highest order, he also brings the other characters back, when it is most important, to the simple realities that surround them. Colman Domingo settles into the role beautifully, gaining momentum as the dramatic action unfolds. As Guy, he has the lion's share of asides to deliver, and he makes good use of every last one. Anthony J. Haney, TheatreWorks' former associate artistic director, returns to play Sam. He does a splendid job. Sterling K. Brown, currently a senior at Stanford, is very sharp in the difficult role of Leland. He balances Leland's harsh sense of judgment with an affable naivete, breathing life into the different sides of the character, but more importantly, bringing his extremes together in convincing fashion. And what a voice! We have much more to look forward to from this young actor.

For all of its facility, the play does lose focus as it nears the close. The concluding events seem as if they're somewhat random, rather than specific movements in the plot put into motion by the unique decisions of the characters. Aside from Angel's fate, the ending seems a bit arbitrary; Sam, Delia, Leland and Guy are all taken care of, to be sure, but not in convincing and satisfying fashion.

Though it isn't pedantic and heavy-hitting with its social commentary, "Blues For An Alabama Sky" offers a subtle, even-handed consideration of the pressures at work in '30s Harlem. With echoes of Hansberry and Williams, it is a play about responsibility--personal, sexual and racial. In Angel, we see the hope and despair of a woman as she looks into an unsure, frightening future. When everything else comes tumbling down, she is left facing a number of difficult choices. Whether she ventures down the right path is nearly irrelevant; what is the strength and, ultimately, the salvation of this character, is that she makes these choices herself.

What: TheatreWorks' "Blues for an Alabama Sky," written by Pearl Cleage, directed by Harry Elam

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, Castro and Mercy streets

When: Through Sept. 21; Tuesdays, 7:30 p.m.; Wed.-Fri, 8 p.m.; Sat., 8 p.m. and 2 p.m. matinees; Sun. 2 and 7 p.m.; Sept. 21, matinee only

Cost: $23-$31

Information: 903-6000 

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