Theater Review: BLUES FOR AN ALABAMA SKY (Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles)

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by Tony Frankel on April 14, 2022

in Theater-Los Angeles

DOWN IN HARLEM

Following the quirky, audacious Slave Play (see review) — the first show of Center Theatre Group’s season at The Taper — the company has done a complete 180 with their production of Pearl Cleage’s 1995 Blues for an Alabama Sky, which opened last night. While Slave Play attempted to turn the conversation about Blacks and racism on its ear, Blues is a congenial, often humorous, sometimes charming, but ultimately melodramatic look at Black life during the Depression towards the tail end of the jazz age Harlem Renaissance.

Joe Holt and Kim Steele

Names such as Langston Hughes, Josephine Baker, and Margaret Sanger are dropped as the characters in this all-Black kitchen-sink dramedy are a doctor who performs abortions, a nightclub performer, a self-proclaimed “notorious homosexual” costumer, and a birth control activist. The fifth is a newly widowed conservative from Alabama who fuels the second act plot lines, which sadly lose credibility in the last scenes. While events are not unbelievable, they’re contrived, even as the dialogue rarely comes across as such. With exaggerated characters who double down rather than change over the play (plot twists win out over character depth), and exciting events intended to appeal to the emotions, the range of dreams, pain, hope & ambition that drove Blacks to migrate North is all here, told with humor and heart. I recommend it for some knockout lines loaded with wit, irony & insight even as the opportunity for true poignancy was thwarted.

Greg Alverez Reid, Kim Steele, Dennis Pearson, Nija Okoro and Joe Holt

Much of that is the script, but director Phylicia Rashad (who performed in the original production in D.C.) never centered on an acting style for her ensemble — the Alabama suitor, the doctor and the churchgoing activist are especially paper-thin with little distinction or inner machinery needed to bring their lines to life. (Rashad sure keeps placing her cast very well, given we are in designer John Iacovelli’s two tiny apartments, for which apparently no one needs keys.) They didn’t hold for laugh lines for some reason, but the cast is absolutely likeable, especially Greg Alverez Reid as “Guy” — who’s more out than Randy Rainbow — and Nija Okoro as blues singer “Angel” — who’s no … you get the picture. But those names make sense when we discover that the misleadingly titled play does not take place in Alabama and there are no blues songs, just a few snippets.

Greg Alverez Reid, Nija Okoro and Kim Steele

I did wonder why Blues has had few professional productions, given you could leave your discernment at the door and still be diverted. Well, the show does feel dated even as a situation play. It’s a shame that the 140-minute work isn’t as intellectual as the contextual 30s’ revival of African American music, dance, art, fashion, literature, theater, and politics, because it’s a great set-up (I was praying that Billy Strayhorn or someone would enter the play). And it got off-putting that one character would come strutting down the street as soon as another left (one of the contrivances to which I referred).

Dennis Pearson and Nija Okoro

Yes, there’s old-fashioned structure and plotting, but Blues for an Alabama Sky provides some sense of Harlem in the Depression (Wendell C. Carmichael’s costumes and wigs are a knockout), and there’s lots of sass, clever dialogue, and ageless topics. But get a pair of headsets in the lobby — this theater has a poor sound design which means depending on where one is seated you will lose lines when actors turn their backs.

Nija Okoro, Kim Steele, Greg Alverez Reid, Joe Holt (back) and Dennis Pearson

photos by Craig Schwartz Photography

Greg Alverez Reid and Kim Steele

Blues for an Alabama Sky
presented by Center Theatre Group
Mark Taper Forum
Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in Downtown L.A.
ends on May 8, 2022
for tickets, call 213.628.2772 or visit CTG

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