Trying to explain what Black Harlem's Renaissance was like is hard. The period was so rich in creative verve, you really have to show it while you tell it. It took me awhile to grasp what playwright Pearl Cleage has achieved - and director Ron OJ Parson has brought carefully to life - in Court Theatre's Blues for an Alabama Sky.
In this beautifully polished production, we become familiar with the lives and aspirations of five denizens of the abundant cultural life enveloping New York's burgeoning black district in the 1920s and 1930s, driven by waves of aspiring new arrivals during the Great Migration from the South to the North. The period gives rise to the first jazz concert, to international musical superstars like Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller; to writers and thinkers like Marcus Garvey, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Claude McKay, who wrote the first bestseller by a black author.
Cleage has fleshed out each of her characters - a doctor, a singer, a fashion designer, a social worker, and a carpenter - who are much more than archetypes. These are real people, each contributing a seminal thread to this tale. She has also set the timeline toward the end of that golden era, in 1930 after the market crash, as the Great Depression rolled in.
The storyline seems surprisingly fresh, but it is true to its time: the protagonists here seem a mismatched couple - a flamboyant gay fashion designer Guy (Sean Parris), and his platonic love, Angel (Toya Turner), a gangsters' moll who tries but fails to make a living as a night club singer.
Abandonedly outré, Guy has worked his way up from stitching gowns for cross dressers, to designing clothes on spec for Josephine Baker. The pair love and support each other as they pursue their dreams, but have no future as a couple; Angel is set on finding herself a big strong man who will take care of her, and pay the rent. Guy wants to make it in Paris.
Across the hall dwells the scholarly Delia (Celeste Cooper), who is launching the first family planning clinic in Harlem. A history lesson makes its way into the plot as the clinic is burned down. Some in the black community suspected efforts at setting up such clinics - led by Margaret Sanger - were really just part of a plot to reduce the black population. Carrying the torch for Delia is Sam, a medical doctor. James Vincent Meredith's performance gives Sam a steady, even temperament - abiding patience, and someone who is tolerant and nurturant.
Conflict arises as Leland (Geno Walker) a widowed carpenter recently arrived from Alabama, falls for Angel. His ardor cools as he discovers he is not in Alabama anymore. In this Black Harlem, homosexuals are accepted; family planning is a matter of choice.
Each of these characters engenders our sympathy. And in the course of the action they live, die, move on - or remain stuck in place. Though Cleage wrote this work in 1995, it is completely fresh. And it has been given its due in Parson's production. Costumes and set are beautifully period, and lighting brings added dimensions to the staging. Blues for an Alabama Sky now extended through February 19th at Court Theatre.
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