Lady Sings the Blues

Angel Allen (Alfie Fuller), who used to be a back-up singer at the Cotton Club, has just been fired from her most recent gig. She arrives home drunk, carried for at least the last two blocks by her friend Guy Jacobs (John-Andrew Morrison) and a handsome stranger, Leland Cunningham (Khiry Walker). Guy is a costume designer on the periphery of the Harlem Renaissance; he babbles interminably about his idol, Josephine Baker, and the dresses he will someday make for her. Leland, on the other hand, is conservative; he comes from Alabama and is quick to propose marriage. He is also contemptuous of Guy’s sexuality and, more generally, Harlem bohemianism. Pearl Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky in effect asks Angel to choose between the two opposing lives these men represent.

Though written in the ‘nineties, this is an old-fashioned work. Its characters, stewing in disappointment and unrealized dreams, are reminiscent of much in mid-century American drama from Willy Loman (1949) to Walter Younger (1959). Indeed, Guy’s visions of costuming “La Bakaire” sound an awful lot like Willy’s fantasies about his success or Walter’s plans to open a liquor store. Furthermore, Cleage’s story is an oft-repeated one, and I’m not sure anyone needs another drama about a depressive, booze-soaked blues singer.

As it happens, Angel has a neighbor, Delia (Jasminn Johnson), who is working with Margaret Sanger on opening a birth control clinic in Harlem. (Guess how Leland feels about that.) Delia is modest and religious and all of a sudden fielding charges that she is enabling genocide. “What does family planning mean to the average colored man?” asks a friend. “White woman teaching colored women how to stop having children.” It’s an interesting and fraught moment and I wish there had been more like it in Blues for an Alabama Sky. In fact, I rather wish the play had been about Delia instead.

Blues for an Alabama Sky runs through March 14th at Theatre Row.  410 W. 42nd Street  New York, NY. 2 hours 30 minutes. One intermission.

Aaron Botwick

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