Playwright Pearl Cleage is deservedly getting her flowers in Chicago this month with a citywide festival celebrating her work, including productions of The Nacirema Society at the Goodman and, first up, Remy Bumppo’s mounting of Blues for an Alabama Sky, which wowed a packed opening-night audience last Monday at Theater Wit.
Cleage has a gift for fast-paced dialogue that requires excellent timing, comedic and otherwise, to pull off. This cast, with crackling lead performances from Breon Arzell and Tiffany Renee Johnson, is more than up to the task, as is sure-footed director Mikael Burke. We meet Angel (Johnson) and Guy (Arzell) years after the friends escape the South to forge creative careers in Harlem during the storied Renaissance. They’ve both found a degree of success–she as a jazz singer at the Cotton Club, he as a costume designer there–but it’s 1930 and the Depression is sweeping the Jazz Age into history’s dustbin. Clubs are closing, gigs are drying up, and Harlem’s status as a place where Black artists could thrive is looking as bleak as the young toughs who now roam the streets and the destitute families sitting on stoops with their belongings piled beside them and no place to go.
Guy, who’s proudly gay, refuses to hide his light under a bushel on these increasingly mean streets. He’s friendly with Josephine Baker–just how close they are is an open question for much of the play–and is furiously designing outfits to send to her in Paris in hopes that she’ll invite him overseas to attend to her wardrobe. Angel, who got them both fired from the Cotton Club when she stopped the show to confront her gangster ex-boyfriend in the front row, adopts the more pragmatic approach of pretending to love Leland (an intense Ajax Dontavius), the recent arrival from Alabama who wants to make a traditional, God-fearing wife out of her.
Big-hearted Guy seems to have made rescuing Angel his life’s work, but her choice to embrace the intolerant Leland strains their relationship to the breaking point, even as their friend, party-loving physician Sam (an amiable Edgar Sanchez), feels romantic sparks with young social worker Delia (Jazzlyn Luckett Aderele, who earns one of the night’s biggest laughs as rapidly changing emotions cross her face when she realizes she’s also falling in love). Unfortunately, Angel’s hard-hearted ways set a series of tragic events into motion that will leave everyone singing the blues.
Do not let that description fool you into thinking this is a depressing night at the theater. Far from it. The snappy repartee keeps the laughs flowing throughout much of the play. Arzell, in particular, is can’t-take-your-eyes-or-ears-off-of-him fabulous. And the costume designs by Gregory Graham and Janelle Smith bring the era to flamboyant life.
Blues for an Alabama Sky, which features a searing speech from Johnson about male ownership of women’s bodies and the lack of abortion access along with large helpings of homophobia and racism, reminds us that the culture war we’re suffering through today has been driving this nation’s politics for a long, long time. Second verse, same as the first.
There’s always Paris.
Blues for an Alabama Sky runs through October 15 at Theater Wit.
For a full roundup of reviews of this show, visit Theatre in Chicago.
Photo by Nomee Photography