Pearl Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky begins with trouble and disappointment. Angel Allen (Mayowa Lisa Reynolds), a vampy lounge singer, has just lost her job and her man on the same night. But her best friend, Guy (Mark Young), a young costume designer, assures her that she can depend on him to pay the rent and support the two of them.
As the story unfolds, two more friends enter the picture, an uptight Delia (Stacie Waddles) and Sam (Cameron Knight), an OB-GYN whose motto might be, “Let the good times roll.”
The setting, by the way, is 1930s Harlem, in the midst of the Depression. Everyone in Blues is looking toward the future for the fulfillment of a dream.
Angel is looking to marry, or at least find, a good man, preferably a rich one. In the meantime, she’ll settle for finding another singing job. Guy has shipped several of his dresses to Josephine Baker, who is a star in Paris; he is praying for a one-way trip to design dresses there. Delia wants to start a birth control clinic in Harlem because she believes that “a woman shouldn’t have to make a baby every time she makes love,” and 40-year-old Sam simply wants a little love in his life.
Blues not only weaves a tale of partnership, love and trust, but also reintroduces us — through conversation — to various figures of the Harlem of the time, including Langston Hughes and Adam Clayton Powell. There isn’t much actual singing here — though Angel belts out “St. Louis Blues” — but the blues are omnipresent as the frustrations of these friends become more and more apparent.
Guy asks Angel, “What are your plans for the future? To sing for gangsters?” Angel retorts that Guy is living a dream waiting for Josephine’s call. Sam tells Delia, “When I deliver babies, the parents ask about jobs, not birth control.”
Despite the bickering, they are a tight foursome. As things progress, Sam and Delia, for instance, find love — with each other — and Delia’s clinic opens.
But the relationships are forever changed after Leland (Mateen Stewart), a wet-behind-the-ears Southern boy, enters the picture.
When Leland calls on Angel, it’s apparent that they are from two different worlds, especially since Leland has never been to a juke joint and Angel hardly, if ever, attends church. But they each fill a need for the other: Leland, a widower, sees a future with Angel while Angel realizes that she can have a happy life outside of the confines of the seedy Harlem club scene.
Then the fifth wheel starts squeaking, and things turn topsy-turvy. When the friends have tea one afternoon and invite Leland, Guy recounts a night of love between himself and another man. Leland calls Guy’s homosexual lifestyle “an abomination” and storms out.
The argument between Guy and Leland forces Angel to choose between them — between Leland, whose child she is carrying, and Guy, the doting friend about to start a new life in Paris. As Angel grapples with her next steps, the audience starts to see Angel for who she really is through the eyes of Guy.
As with all of us, these characters are the sum of their decisions. And when Angels finally and firmly takes action, the consequences are grave for all.
As Marvin Gaye sang in “Trouble Man,” “There’s only three things for sure — taxes, death and trouble.” Blues for an Alabama Sky delivers two of them with a bang.
Pearl Cleage, a native Detroiter, will discuss her work at the Bauder Contemporary American Authors Lecture series at Marygrove College’s Alumnae Hall on Friday, April 16, 8 p.m. Free to the public. Call 313-927-1448 for information. The author of novels including What Looks Like Crazy On An Ordinary Day and Some Things I Never Thought I’d Do, Cleage is currently a playwright-in-residence at Spelman College.
Blues for an Alabama Sky is playing in the General Motors Theatre in the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History (315 E. Warren Ave., Detroit) through Sunday, April 25. Call 313-872-0279 for more information.Curtrise Garner is a freelance writer. E-mail [email protected]