A rather decent rendition of Blues for an Alabama Sky is happening over at Atlas. The scene changes take too much time and distract from the quietly unfolding drama, but otherwise, the writing is well served and the actors have a field day with the material.
Beautifully set in 1930’s Harlem, the play hinges on the enigmatic character Angel Allen who enters in a totally inebriated state assisted by her best friend in life, her flagrantly flamboyant buddy, Guy.
Maryam Fatima Foye embodies her role completely and is a joy to watch. With exquisite features, kewpie-doll lips and expressive eyes, she gazes out at life’s offerings as a passing fancy of what suits her for the moment. As Angel, Foye covers the most emotional territory in the script. In her opening scene, she’s so drunk she can’t stand on her own two feet and has cussed her way out of her precious singing job. Guy lets her crash at his place, so on the surface, she seems hopeless and helpless. At the same time, her hard knocks life has built a tough as steel interior which Foye portrays with a cutting-edged stare when she’s cornered, so don’t even Think about messing with her.
On the other hand, Guy, who is more like Angel’s “sister-friend,” and shares her backwoods beginnings, continues to be taunted and roughed up for his exotic flair. While he comes across as sweet and naïve, Guy has the interior constitution of a bull, able to rebuff all abuse, pick himself up and charge right back out at life with unflappable determination. A costumer extraordinaire with a gift for glitz and sequins, Guy’s life-long ambition is to be plucked out of obscurity by designing for the legendary Josephine Baker and living a charmed life in gay Paree. Guy dreams the impossible dream and yearns for a happy ending despite the hand to mouth reality of life in Harlem less than 100 years out of slavery. Joshua David Robinson plays his character to the flaming hilt.
The other couple in the quartet is just as interesting and nicely cast. Sasha Lightbourne plays Delia as trust-worthy neighbor and loyal friend with just the right amount of good-girl grit and charm. Most comfortable in drabby attire and sensible shoes, Delia’s s favorite position is tucked in the shadows of life, expecting no special attention, except when she’s advocating for her causes– women’s health and access to family planning. With uncanny timing reflecting today’s throes, the play highlights the importance of a woman’s right to choose and alludes to the sacrifices made by the early pioneers for women’s health, with heated references to Margaret Singer visiting Abyssinia Baptist Church, led by the righteous Reverend and legendary Adam Clayton Powell. Jr.
In one respect, the script by Pearl Cleage sets up the meeting of these two titans as if it was the most natural thing in the world, while another section reflects the tragic consequences when the two philosophical positions collide with passionate vehemence. The always reliable Keith E. Irby plays a good-natured physician and love interest for Delia and serves as a touch stone for the philosophical divide when he butts up against a mysterious stranger just up from Alabama. Gary-Kayi Fletcher is rock steady as the quietly mourning suitor smitten with Angel for unsavory reasons and whose raging hurt instigates a tragic end.
Cleage juggles a hefty amount of tough material with refreshing ease, thanks to the soulful portrayal of the characters by the actors and tender direction by Dallas who has a knack for extracting wonder and excitement from even the smallest moments. Legendary director that he is, Dallas is not afraid of the quiet space between the lines and gives his characters a chance to explore their depths—which makes the longish scene transitions so exasperating because it slows down the quietly building momentum. Considering the powerful impact of the climactic scenes, one can only imagine what we would experience without plodding transitions which will undoubtedly tighten over time.
All of the other production elements work together seamlessly for an engaging effect, starting with the creative, authentic set design by Timothy J. Jones that depicts two distinct apartments adjacent to each other with a cut-away wall and corridor in between. As designed, characters can peer into the audience to look out of the window at the activity outside, or gaze longingly lost in thoughts or daydreams, all beautifully lit by Arnika L. Downey. The music design by David L. Wilson is exquisite and covers a range of styles including ballads from Bessie Smith to Billie Holliday, a touch of ragtime, and lingering sax tunes drenched in blues and jazzy riffs, before ending with the soulful instrumental version of Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free.” Costumes by LeVonne D. Lindsey also rise to the occasion with hats and dresses to fit the occasion, from stunningly glamorous to Plain Jane as needed.
Blues For An Alabama Sky is a satisfying work that reflects people living with their decisions, including the tragic aftermaths. When Foye as Angel looks out into the audience as the last one standing, she reflects the resilience and resolve to keep on pressing despite the wrongs done to her or those that she herself has perpetrated. It’s an impressive moment that Foye accomplishes with aplomb and is a reflection of a job well done for all involved in Blues For An Alabama Sky.
Blues for an Alabama Sky
Written by Pearl Cleage
Directed by Walter Dallas
Produced by African Continuum Theatre
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission
- Celia Wren . Washington Post