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Edited and Published by Robert W. McDowell

September 15, 2022 Issue
PART 2C (September 12, 2022)

A FREE Weekly E-mail Newsletter Covering Theater, Dance, Music, and Film in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill/Carrboro Area of North Carolina Since April 2001.


Blues for an Alabama Sky at PRC Showcases Superior Talents

Blues for an Alabama Sky on Sept. 7-25 at PlayMakers Repertory Company stars Tia James and Jamar Jones (photo by HuthPhoto)

EDITORS NOTE: This review contains SPOILERS.

PlayMakers Repertory Company at UNC-Chapel Hill showcased superior talents in last night's opening night of Pearl Cleage's Blues for an Alabama Sky. It was the first show of PlayMakers' 2022-23 season; and scenic designer Matthew Smucker's set, combined with Marcus Dilliard's soft but ample lighting and sound designer Larry D. Fowler, Jr.'s perfect pitch and volume, made everyone feel like coming home -- to a comfortable high-rise apartment in Harlem, NY, during the summer of 1930.

The play begins with a drunken Cotton Club singer, who -- after being fired for making a scene over the front-row wedding party of her Italian-gangster ex-boyfriend -- is being escorted home by two men. This is Angel, and actress Tia James makes the audience laugh immediately with her poignantly funny lines.

One of the escorts is Angel's longtime best friend and off-and-on roommate Guy -- a gay costume-designer played with transparent nuance by Jamar Jones. Delia (played by Saleemah Sharpe), a 25-year-old social worker who works at Harlem's Margaret Sanger family-planning clinic and lives alone across the hall, joins Guy and Angel in their sitting room.

The cast of PlayMakers Repertory Company's Sept. 7-25 production of Pearl Cleage's Blues for an Alabama Sky, directed by Valerie
Curtis-Newton, includes (from left) Jamar Jones, André G. Brown, Saleemah Sharpe, and Tia James (photo by HuthPhoto)

Despite Prohibition, Angel and Guy drink alcohol whenever they are onstage, displaying their inclinations toward indulgence, while Delia rarely drinks, but seems just as much a fixture in their home as they are. The three are soon joined by Sam, played by André G. Brown, who is a 40-year-old physician and well-known partier when he isn't delivering babies (or preventing them). As the characters converse, we learn that Guy has been persistently sending costume samples to Josephine Baker (1906-75), an African American dancer, singer, actress, and civil rights activist who found fame as an expatriate in Europe -- and who Angel believes is just leading Guy on.

The stranger who helped Guy get Angel home the night before stops by to check on her. His name is Leland, and his generally subdued Alabama nature seems natural to actor Heinley Gaspard. It's clear from the get-go that Leland is a conservative Christian and -- to her credit -- that Angel is not. Nonetheless, Angel increasingly appreciates the financial security that Leland can offer. (Despite Guy's love and insistence that he will provide for her, Guy is living a pipe dream and can never truly be her conjugal partner.) Leland's infatuation with Angel drives her to enable a romantic relationship with him and, perhaps, even marry this man with whom she has very little in common and does not love.

Jamar Jones and Tia James star in Blues for an Alabama Sky (photo by HuthPhoto)

Meanwhile, Delia and Sam develop a romantic relationship as they join efforts to get a local church to support a family planning clinic. By the time that Josephine Baker actually invites Guy to join her in France, Angel is pregnant with Leland's baby. Faced with Guy's now legitimate invitation to accompany him, Angel obtains an illegal abortion, performed by Sam, causing the furious Leland to shoot and kill the well-meaning doctor. In the end, Delia agrees to accompany Guy to Paris; and Angel, who has been incognito since the shooting, sits in the apartment alone.

Though Saleemah Sharpe adeptly portrays the mousy and prudent Delia, Delia's character seems written to be flat, which is disappointing. Tia James adeptly portrays Angel's energy and vivacity, as well as the deflated enthusiasm that causes her sometimes manic behavior; but, despite the play's starring of a Cotton Club singer and the prominence of the word "Blues" in its title, the audience isn't treated to a single vocal performance.

Heinley Gaspard and Tia James star in PlayMakers Repertory Company's presentation of Blues for an Alabama Sky (photo by HuthPhoto)

From the few weak lines that she sings while bantering around the apartment, it is clear that Angel (and Tia James) can sing -- making it all the more disappointing that the playwright didn't begin the play with the scene of Angel's firing, rather than just telling us about it. (Similar opportunities were also missed elsewhere.) The male roles were the standouts, and Jamar Jones' representation of Guy's successful determination to step into his creative power and unencumbered homosexuality was an absolute highlight.

PlayMakers Rep's presentation of Blues for an Alabama Sky stars André G. Brown and Saleemah Sharpe (photo by HuthPhoto)

If you are looking for a play that will provoke relevant conversations with adolescents in your family, Blues for an Alabama Sky is a good place to start. You will also appreciate the play's references to prominent black personages during the time of the play, including Langston Hughes (1902-67) -- famous poet, columnist, activist, and leader of the Harlem Renaissance; Richard Bruce Nugent (1906-87) -- famous and unapologetically homosexual writer and painter of the Harlem Renaissance; and Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., (1865-1953) -- founder and pastor of the largest Protestant congregation in America (at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem) as well as the National Urban League and numerous historically black colleges and schools. I only wish the playwright had written live blues and more action and drama into the play.

Jamar Jones and Tia James star in PlayMakers Repertory Company's production of Blues for an Alabama Sky (photo by HuthPhoto)

Pearl Cleage's BLUES FOR AN ALABAMA SKY (In Person at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 13-18 and 20-25), directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton and starring (in alphabetical order) André G. Brown as Dr. Sam, Heinley Gaspard as Leland, Tia James as Angel, Jamar Jones as Guy, and Saleemah Sharpe as Delia (PlayMakers Repertory Company in the Paul Green Theatre in UNC-Chapel Hill's Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art). VIDEOS: 2022-23 SEASON: PRC NEWS RELEASE: THE PRESENTER:,,,, and PRC BLOG: THE VENUE: DIRECTIONS/PARKING: CAROLINA TOGETHER COVID-19 PAGE: THE PLAY: and THE SCRIPT (excerpts): THE PLAYWRIGHT:,,,, and NOTE 1: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe and sign-language interpret the show's 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 13th, performance. NOTE 2: The 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 18th, show will be an open-captioned performance, with a "universal-access" live-caption unit, communicating dialog, stage directions, and sound effects. NOTE 3: The 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 20th, show will be a socially distanced performance. TICKETS: $20 and up ($10 students and youth), plus taxes and fees. Click here to buy tickets. INFORMATION: 919-962-7529 or PLEASE DONATE TO: PlayMakers Repertory Company.

EDITOR'S NOTE: A Durham, NC resident for 20 years, Melissa Rooney is a scientific editor, freelance writer, and author of several science-based children's picture books. She has published children's stories and verse in Highlights Children's Magazine and Bay Leaves. Rooney earned undergraduate degrees in English and Chemistry from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA; and she earned a Ph.D. in Chemistry in 1998 from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Her stories Eddie the Electron and The Fate of The Frog form the basis of two workshops offered through the Durham Arts Council's Culture and Arts in the Public Schools (CAPS) program, through which Rooney teaches elementary- and middle-school students about electrons and atoms or sustainability and rhyme, respectively. When she isn't writing, editing, reading, teaching, or experiencing theater, Rooney volunteers as an Associate Supervisor on the Durham's Soil and Water Conservation District.


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