The fascinating and heartbreaking shift from the height of the influential Harlem Renaissance to the beginning of the Great Depression serves as the pivotal foundation of Pearl Cleage’s powerful 1995 drama Blues for an Alabama Sky, excellently presented by Sinclair Community College in Blair Hall Theatre.
Inspired by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes’ autobiography The Big Sea, Blues for an Alabama Sky chronicles African-American life in the Harlem summer of 1930 (scenic designer Terry Stump wonderfully conjures the essence of 125th St.) as a place of promise, purpose and pitfalls. Due to the Great Migration of blacks from the South in the early 20th century, Harlem overflowed with enlightening and progressive black voices, straight and gay, male and female, in visual and performing arts, allowing whites a chance to understand the black experience as never before. Even health care activist Margaret Sanger, a birth control pioneer, sought support from blacks as the Renaissance grew into a movement so expansive Josephine Baker dictated fashion trends from Paris. Granted, not every legend from this crucial period is namedropped in the play (Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, Paul Robeson, Fats Waller, and Duke Ellington are among those surprisingly absent), but Cleage still creates an intimate, colorful and extremely tight-knit look at five African-Americans trying to carve a path as the country faces economic disaster. “The Depression has killed all the night life in Harlem,” says aspiring singer Angel, an unchurched, down-on-her-luck, ex-Cotton Club performer clinging to the prospect of something greater at a time when jobs are scarce. So, what do you do when singing the blues gives you the blues? Angel ultimately realizes there’s only one thing she can do: survive.
Director Kimberly Borst, whose knack for fluidity impresses once again, creates a communal experience so strong essentially every scene arrives with utmost expectancy. She has also assembled a vibrantly heartfelt ensemble clearly selling the play’s emotional highs and devastating lows. The luminous Bryana Bentley, a vision in costumer Kathleen Hotmer’s attractive period attire, interprets Angel’s complexities with a beguiling mix of passion, anger, arrogance, intimidation, and vulnerability. Her portrayal often stings and seduces in the same breath. Shaun Diggs, in one of his finest performances, is terrific as the religious, judgmental, unyielding, and naïve Leland Cunningham who arrives in Harlem from Tuskegee, Alabama unprepared for the cultural explosion encircling him. After Leland falls head over heels for Angel and learns a few hard truths, Diggs isn’t afraid to show the darker feelings festering underneath Leland’s gentlemanly qualities. The outstanding Justin Lampkins delivers a breakthrough performance as bubbly Guy, Angel’s loyal roommate, confidant and costumer inspired by the beauty and glamour of Josephine Baker. Marvelously embodying Angel’s desire to take Paris by storm as Josephine’s designer, the sophisticated Lampkins invigorates each moment with effortless command of period nuances and a naturally effervescent flair. The endearingly sensitive Erin McGee as progressive social worker Delia hoping to open family planning clinics and amiable S. Francis Livisay as Harlem Hospital physician Sam are very compatible in matters of health and romance.
Blues for an Alabama Sky is a captivating examination of love, loss, discrimination, sexual harassment, intolerance, deception, identity, faith, tragedy, and hope. It’s a historical throwback undeniably educational, meaningful and relevant today. Whether you’re contemplating what your future holds as far away as Europe or as close as your windowsill, always dare to dream.
Blues for an Alabama Sky continues through Oct. 14 in Blair Hall Theatre, Building 2, Sinclair Community College, 444 W. Third St., Dayton. Act One: 75 minutes; Act Two: 60 minutes. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15-$18. For tickets or more information, call (937) 512-2808 or visit sinclair.edu/tickets.