The setting of Blues for an Alabama Sky takes place not in the cotton state, but in Harlem New York, circa 1930. Angel is singing the blues after losing her job at the Cotton Club, along with her wardrobe, and the apartment she shared a married man. Flamboyant Guy comes to Angel’s rescue – not for the first time – and invites Angel to stay in his apartment until she can get back on her feet. Guy is kind, generous, thoughtful, unendingly optimistic, and sometimes, larger than life.
Guy has dreams of Paris and designing gowns for Josephine Baker; Angel just wants to survive. Across the hall from Guy lives Delia, a responsible secretary and women’s rights advocate, sometimes swept up in Guy’s dynamic social calendar; physician Sam rounds out this foursome of very different, and seemingly unlikely group of friends.
Sam and Delia work together in opening the first family-planning clinic in Harlem, falling in love in the process. Angel is courted by a visiting carpenter from Alabama, Leland, running from his ghosts, who is captivated by Angel’s resemblance to his late wife. But the Southern Christian Leland is unable to accept the progressive lifestyles of this Harlem quartet, and the result is devastating tragedy that drives them all apart.
Playwright Pearl Clage explains “[w]hen I write, I explore characters who…find themselves confronted with other people’s ideas of who they should be.” Perhaps this is why there is abundant opportunity for the audience member to render judgment of the characters if inclined to do so. It’s all too easy to criticize Angel for being opportunistic, Guy as having his head in the clouds, Sam for drinking too much, Delia for being too idealistic, Leland for his rigidity and righteousness. Or maybe that’s just my own bias staring me in the face.
As a brown woman, I couldn’t help but notice that the audience for this African American cast of characters is almost exclusively Caucasian. I also observe a collective willingness to listen and learn, to engage in a dialogue that is long overdue. The play is powerful, and in some respects, haunting. It is powerful, and it is worth seeing. The running time may be two and a half hours, but the experience, and the questions it brings, will linger far longer.
Blues for an Alabama Sky is playing on the Wurtele Thrust Stage at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis until March 12, 2023. Tickets start at $31.