Thursday, 29 September 2022

Theatre review: Blues for an Alabama Sky

I know theatre always uses the past to illustrate and comment on the present, but the National staging a play set during the Great Depression right now feels a bit on the nose. Specifically, Pearl Cleage's Blues for an Alabama Sky takes place at the tail end of the Harlem Renaissance, where the creative explosion and progressive attitudes that came with it are still strongly felt, but the financial realities are starting to kick in as well, and the residents of the ground floor of a New York apartment block are balancing dreams with realistic expectations. Angel (understudy Helena Pipe) has just been dumped by the gangster who turned out, to nobody's real surprise, to have a wife; he's turfed her out of the apartment he was keeping her in just as she lost her job in a cabaret. Her friend, dressmaker and notorious homosexual Guy (Giles Terera) has taken her in, to stay on his couch in a living room dominated by a photo of Josephine Baker.

Baker is at the centre of Guy's dream: He's met her a few times and she mentioned he should move to Paris and design her costumes for her. He keeps sending her samples and waiting for the invitation, and he promises Angel she can join him when he gets his big break.

Guy's neighbour is Delia (Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo), who works tirelessly to help set up family planning centres, but in her personal life is sweetly innocent and inexperienced. Completing the quartet of old friends is Sam (Sule Rimi), a doctor who seems to have delivered every baby in Harlem for the last couple of decades. All of them are feeling the pinch of the times, but aren't quite as badly off yet as the homeless families they see on the streets. Angel is offered an alternative way out when newcomer Leland (Osy Ikhile) arrives from Alabama, but their romance isn't quite the fairy story it first appears.

Leland has been instantly attracted to Angel because of her resemblance to his late wife; Angel doesn't have feelings for him but is happy to play along because she sees him as a source of financial security. But in the ultra-conservative Leland she's also brought a danger into a friendship group that includes a flaboyantly gay man and advocates of women's reproductive rights. So a threat of things turning nasty is bubbling under what is a slow burn of a play - although it has a few lulls Lynette Linton's production doesn't quite feel as long as its hefty running time, but it's certainly more of a character piece than an action-packed one.

They're very well-constructed characters too, witty and playful with a lot of funny moments, and the cast make you care about them, with no sign that they've had to use an understudy so early in the run: In contrast to the other characters who've held onto their dreams despite their problems, Pipe's Angel is a desperately sad woman whose party-girl image is surface-deep at the best of times, and whose despair might well unintentionally drag the others down with her. But Cleage's play does have some surprises, and though there are some very dark turns they don't necessarily come in the ways it initially seems to be hinting at.

Frankie Bradshaw's set is a deconstructed apartment building that lazily swings backwards and forwards on a revolve to foreground either Guy's or Delia's apartment; the ensemble walks along the fire escapes and sometimes, alongside the main cast, break into Blues songs - the music that Angel loves and would prefer to make her living singing, but which isn't in demand in the nightclubs at the time. Definitely an interesting production, Blues for an Alabama Sky is moody but frequently broken up by humour, and its story mirrors not only what was happening in Germany around the same time but a seemingly endless refrain: In the Harlem Renaissance, the African-American community built a safe and progressive space for themselves that looked like it would preserve hope even in the darkest times, but conservative voices were always ready to take that away from them in the name of their own good.

Blues for an Alabama Sky by Pearl Cleage is booking until the 5th of November at the National Theatre's Lyttelton.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

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