Writer: Pearl Cleage
Director: Lynette Linton
Written in 1995 and set in Prohibition-era Harlem, New York, Pearl Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky concerns itself with themes that mark it as decidedly relevant for the 2020s, a near century on from its jazz age trappings. Women’s reproductive rights, homosexuality and violent reprisals against both, often spurred on by religious motivations, make the National’s revival sadly fitting for our times.
The play revolves around Giles Terera’s flamboyant gay costume designer Guy and his best friend, blues singer Angel (Samira Wiley). The latter takes up on Guy’s sofa after being dumped by her Italian gangster boyfriend, losing the apartment he provided for her and being fired from her job at a dance club. Guy dreams of making costumes for Josephine Baker, but Angel believes his dreaming is a way of ignoring the perilous state of the pair’s finances.
Across the hall, Ronkę Adékoluęjo’s Christian social worker Delia has ambitions of setting up the neighbourhood’s first family planning clinic, with the assistance of local doctor Sam (Rule Rimi) who delivers babies at the nearby hospital but has also been known to perform illegal abortions.
These central characters are generally happy people, with director Lynette Linton helping to corral the ensemble into delivering fine comic performances that immediately admit us into this tight-knit circle of friends. But threats of violence are never far away: Guy and his other gay friends face constant harassment and the possibility of assault merely for having the audacity to exist, and opposition to Delia’s clinic culminates in the building she was hoping to use being firebombed.
When Osy Ikhile’s Alabama-born Leland saunters into their lives as a suitor for Angel, it initially seems as if she may be able to break away from relying upon being the mistress of powerful men and form a meaningful relationship at last. But red flags start to appear: he is interested in her primarily because she reminds him of his dead wife, who died while in labour with a son who also did not survive. And Leland’s attitudes, founded upon a version of Christianity more severe than Delia’s, place him in opposition to Guy’s existence as a gay man or the idea of women having control over their own fertility.
Cleage fails to draw Leland’s personality with anything approaching the sort of depth she devotes to her other characters, relying instead on Angel’s conflict over the possibility of stability with a man who clashes so jarringly with her friends and their beliefs. Wiley does an exemplary job of portraying this turmoil, using Angel’s turbulent whirlwinds of emotion as a betrayal of her inner thoughts.
Beside her, Terera is the dominant force of the play, turning Guy from an archetypal camp gay man into the deep, beating heart within the friends’ circle. While his success is a loud and proud blast that immediately draws the eye, Adékoluęjo quietly and more subtly impresses with her portrayal of a woman gradually opening up to the possibility of finding love with Rimi’s Sam.
Designer Frankie Bradshaw’s set, a deconstructed brownstone that gently rotates as our attention moves from Guy’s apartment to Delia’s next door and back, lends the piece a great sense of place.
And while the wit that infuses the play’s first act gives way to darker material as the second act heads toward tragedy, what remains are strong performances that imbue characters with lives infused with blues – whether blues performed in song by Wiley, Terera and, on occasion, the play’s ensemble of understudies, or the blues of lives at the cusp of American excess as it tips into the penury of the Depression.
Balancing the need to let the good time roll with the realities of living with consequence, Linton’s revival of Blues for an Alabama Sky may be depressingly relevant to today, but that makes it all the more vital a watch.
Continues until 5 November 2022