`Blues' is a story of bonding

Review: Pearl Cleage's new play is a smart tale of hopes, dreams and survival in the languishing days of the Harlem Renaissance.

March 27, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

A respected doctor, a Harlem showgirl, a prim social worker and a flamboyant costume designer make an unlikely foursome. But in Pearl Cleage's "Blues for an Alabama Sky," they're more than that - they're a surrogate family.

Receiving a skillful local premiere at Everyman Theatre, "Blues" is the second Cleage play about a makeshift family set against a historic backdrop that's been staged recently in Baltimore. ("Flyin' West," Cleage's play about a 19th-century all-black pioneer town, was produced this winter by Arena Players.)

In both plays, the characters' lives are upset by an outsider. "Blues," however, is a more polished work that makes an even stronger case for Cleage's broad themes of the importance of taking chances, and of taking charge of your own fate.

Set during the waning days of the Harlem Renaissance, "Blues" focuses on two central characters: Angel, a spirited showgirl who has lost her Italian gangster boyfriend and her nightclub job in one fell swoop, and Guy, a gay costume designer who has lost his job defending her.

Although the two are longtime friends and, once again, roommates, their approach to life is diametrically opposed. Their shared history - which dates back to a Southern brothel where Guy followed Angel's lead in squirreling away enough money to get to New York - suggests their philosophies may once have been more evenly matched. But Angel has hardened into a cynic who dismisses Guy's hopes of designing costumes in Paris for Josephine Baker as a futile dream. While Guy represents the wonders that can happen when you defy the odds, Angel represents the dangers when you don't.

The character who ultimately follows Guy's lead isn't Angel but Delia, the social worker. A woman who takes risks in her professional life, Delia is determined to set up a birth control clinic in Harlem, despite opposition from those who see this as the whites' way of reducing the black birthrate. As the play progresses, strait-laced Delia learns to take risks in her personal life as well, falling in love with Sam, a hardworking but high-living Harlem doctor.

The lives these four have carved out for themselves take an irrevocable detour when Angel becomes involved with a narrow-minded young widower, newly arrived from Alabama. Unlike her three Harlem friends, Angel can't imagine surviving without being dependent on a man. And at this point, she's so desperate, any man with a steady income will do.

Cleage's characters are distinctly and carefully drawn, and director Jennifer Nelson has assembled a cast that does justice to their idiosyncrasies. As Angel, Deidra LaWan Starnes is at once fragile, self-destructive and alluring. Elauna Griffin's Delia is her polar opposite, a disparity emphasized by designer Rosemary Pardee's 1930s costumes (tailored dark suits for Delia; spangles and feathers for Angel). But anxious as she may be, Angel unleashes a sense of fun in Delia.

As Sam, the doctor whose motto is "Let the good times roll," Frederick Strother is a wonder - a thoughtful teddy bear with an infectious ability to get the most out of life. Enjoying a good time is one of several traits Sam shares with Guy (played with preening flair by Lance Williams). Both men value hard work and loyal friendship.

That we believe these four dissimilar souls could bond is one indication of the effectiveness of the world Cleage has created. Another is how out of place Leland, Angel's Alabama suitor appears. Jefferson A. Russell, who also played the outsider in Arena Players' "Flyin' West," lets his character's incongruity build; he truly doesn't realize what he's getting into. Initially an almost comic round peg in a square hole, he grows to represent a serious threat.

"Harlem was supposed to be a place where Negroes could come together and really walk about, and for a red-hot minute, we did," Guy says. "Blues for an Alabama Sky" recaptures that minute and shows what it took to keep going after the good times no longer rolled.

`Blues'

Where: Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St.

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays. Through April 15

Admission: $15-$20

Call: 410-752-2208

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