Although it’s been twenty-five years since playwright Pearl Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky made its debut in Atlanta, the Keen Company’s current revival at Theatre Row marks the New York premiere of this profoundly affecting period piece – and it was well worth the wait. Set at the intersection of the Harlem Renaissance, Prohibition, and the Great Depression, the momentous issues that impacted the history and characters of that era still retain their relevance in our current divisive times of economic hardship, bigotry, battles over abortion rights, and gun violence, in a thoroughly engaging production that is beautifully written, skillfully directed, masterfully performed, and evocatively designed.
The engrossing story revolves around the aspirations, attitudes, and inter-relationships of an intimate circle of four friends, and a stranger from Alabama, who come and go inside and out of an apartment building on 126th Street in Harlem in the sweltering summer of 1930, when change is in the air. Plot-driving references to such icons of the era as Josephine Baker, Langston Hughes, Margaret Sanger, and Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., along with a subtle allusion to the horrendous Tuskegee Experiment that would begin in 1932, provide historical context, as do the transporting period-style and character-defining set (by You-Shin Chen) and costumes (Asa Benally), along with lighting (Oona Curley) and original music and sound (Lindsay Jones) that shift tone as the mood of the narrative changes.
Directed by LA Williams at a captivating pace and with a perfect combination of humor, heart, and anticipation, the tension builds and the revelations keep coming as his top-notch cast delivers empathetic performances filled with joking and camaraderie, natural conversations and angry disagreements, believable personalities and credible character development, which render the four close-knit individuals real and likeable, and make us care about what happens to them and the toll the newcomer takes on their lives.
In the role of Guy – a gay costume designer and eternal optimist who dreams of moving to Paris, dresses and decorates to the hilt, pours champagne freely, and sprinkles his speech with French parlance – John-Andrew Morrison is every bit as charismatic and “élégant” as the character he portrays. He shares his quarters with Angel – a feisty, flirty, and self-defeating blues singer, just dumped by her Mafioso sugar-daddy and fired that very night for calling him out from the stage in the middle of her act. She is played with just the right balance of passion, desperation, callous selfishness, and ingrained hopelessness by the terrific Alfie Fuller.
The tour-de-force performances of the leads are supported by equally compelling characterizations by the show’s three fine featured actors. Jasminn Johnson is irresistible as Delia, their industrious and intelligent, modest and innocent across-the-hall neighbor, devoted to both the Abyssinian Baptist Church and to opening a family-planning clinic in Harlem for all the rights reasons. To help her cause, she enlists the aid of Sam, a dedicated and fun-loving doctor she meets through Guy and Angel, who, as brought to life by the excellent Sheldon Woodley, enjoys drinking and is determined to “let the good times roll” as a way to overcome the pressures of his stressful work and times. Rounding out the consistently impressive cast is Khiry Walker as the increasingly problematic Leland, a judgmental, reactionary, “small-minded” outsider who falls for Angel, then rails against everything she, her friends, and the progressive Harlem Renaissance represent, launching them back into the reality of the repression and hatred they were trying to escape.
The only question that remains about this outstanding work is why it hasn’t been seen in New York until now. But with Keen Company’s superb production, audiences can thank their lucky stars that Blues for an Alabama Sky has arrived at last. Run, don’t walk, to Theatre Row for this deeply moving, captivating, and ever-timely human story.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, including an intermission.