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Harlem Slights

Cleage Creates an Alabama Full of Types, Not People

(From left) Lance Williams, Elauna Griffin, Frederick Strother in Everyman Theatre's Blues for an Alabama Sky

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 3/28/2001

Blues for an Alabama Sky

Pearl Cleage

Blues for an Alabama Sky is a lovely play, but stock characters keep it from being anything more, despite the best efforts of a fine Everyman Theatre cast. Pearl Cleage's script beautifully captures the moment when the Harlem Renaissance was winding down and the Depression was just getting started. But she fails to give her protagonists real depth, using archetypes to illustrate her points instead of making their personalities move the play.

Sky takes place in two Harlem apartments during the summer of 1930. The story begins when Angel, a singer, gets fired, dumped by her mobster boyfriend, and kicked out of her apartment all in one night--which prompts her to get hopelessly drunk. Fortunately her best friend Guy is there to take her in and take care of her. Guy, a costume designer and out homosexual, dreams of moving to Paris and working for entertainer Josephine Baker. He lives next-door to Delia, a 25-year-old churchgoing virgin who wants to open a family-planning clinic in Harlem. The quartet is completed by Sam, a doctor who delivers babies by day and spends his nights partying with Angel, Guy, and their eclectic group of friends, which includes writer Langston Hughes.

When Angel meets a Southern gentleman named Leland, it looks like she'll be dating a nice guy for the first time in her chaotic life. But Leland, who is used to the more conventional morality of his Alabama home, soon reveals himself to be homophobic and closed-minded. Still, Angel can't walk away. Meanwhile, Guy continues sending his sketches to Baker, waiting for her response. And Delia crusades for her clinic and finds herself attracted to the boisterous Sam.

Sky's dialogue is fun and snappy, but with only two locations (Guy and Angel's apartment and Delia's) and a limited amount of space, the production feels cramped and static. Also, director Jennifer Nelson's pacing is a bit lethargic, making the 90-minute first act uncomfortably long. On the other hand, Robin Stapley's set makes excellent use of the space. Guy and Angel's place is crammed with dresses, messes, and details that perfectly suit both the characters and the period. Delia's Spartan apartment stands beside it in excellent contrast, and the use of partial windows and walls defines the space without blocking the view; the airiness is especially appropriate because of the lack of boundaries in the characters' lives.

The pace picks up a bit in the second half as Angel's life begins to really spiral out of control and her friends struggle to help without getting dragged down too. And the audience waits anxiously to find out who will fall victim to a gun seen in the first half. Unfortunately, this heightened drama can't solve Sky's biggest problem: its formulaic characters. Angel is the charismatic bad girl. Guy is the wisecracking gay best friend. Delia is the idealistic good girl, and Leland ends up being little more than a conservative Southern bumpkin. The only character with real depth and originality is Sam, the partying doctor who is never sure whether to be a saint or a sinner, or which is which.

The actors do the best they can with these stereotypes. Deidra LaWan Starnes tries to give Angel depth, but her motivation is never entirely clear. Lance Williams' Guy is thoroughly enchanting, with charisma and timing to burn. Elauna Griffin's Delia is endearing, if hampered by the script's one-dimensional concept. Frederick Strother makes the most of his complex character, subtly exposing Sam's inner struggles. Jefferson A. Russell has the daunting task of making Leland into a human being and can't quite overcome Cleage's stereotypical portrait. Faster pacing would help move this particular production along, but, populated with types rather than people, Sky will always fall a little flat.

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