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Edited and Published by Robert W. McDowell

September 15, 2022 Issue
PART 6 (September 15, 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.

PART 6A: TRIANGLE THEATER REVIEW BY SUSIE POTTER

PlayMakers Rep's Blues for an Alabama Sky Is
a Haunting, Poignant View of 1930's Harlem


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

These days, slice-of-life plays are becoming fewer and further between. Fortunately, PlayMakers Repertory Company either didn't get the memo or chose to eschew it in favor of Pearl Cleage's beautifully written, poignant Blues for an Alabama Sky, onstage now in the Paul Green Theatre, under the direction of Valerie Curtis-Newton. This play is, indeed, a slice-of-life show; but it's not a slice of life you get to see very often. Set in the summer of 1930 in Harlem, Blues for an Alabama Sky centers around a group of friends, all doing their best to make a place for themselves in their ever-changing, tumultuous world.

At the heart of the show is Angel, powerfully acted by Tia James. She's a dreamer in her own right, but one who has been hardened, at least somewhat, by the uncompromising, male-driven world around her. Fortunately, she's got cheerful Guy, joyfully portrayed by Jamar Jones, as her bestie and support system. They're also friends with straightforward, practical Delia (Saleemah Sharpe), who is doing her part to fight for women's reproductive rights, and smart, skilled bachelor/doctor Sam (André G. Brown).


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)

Together, this foursome seems ready to take on the world and anything it throws at them, but then Leland Cunningham (Heinley Gaspard) enters the picture. He falls hopelessly in love with Angel -- or at least his version of Angel -- at first sight. Unfortunately, however, his old-school views and ways don't quite mesh with this broader-minded group, which results in some surprising twists and turns.

The story that unfolds is a somber one in many ways. But there's also plenty of light within the script. The relationships that exist among the core friend group ring true. In fact, that's part of the story's charm.

Blues for an Alabama Sky may be set in the past; but the relationships are real, vibrant, and often deeply touching. Furthermore, the script stands out for centering around a minority group without making their race the sole focus. Yes, the characters' Blackness is a central part of the story. Yes, it influences them, their choices, and the freedom that they have or don't have to fully make those choices; but these characters are also allowed to simply exist, to live their lives as fully-realized characters.


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

None of this is to say that this type of storytelling doesn't exist in modern theater, but shows that do it as well as this one don't see the light of the stage frequently enough, though it appears that PRC is working hard to change that, as it should.

As the characters chase seemingly impossible dreams and grapple with tough questions about where their loyalties truly lie, viewers will find that, regardless of time and place, there is much to identify with in this script. Blues for an Alabama Sky is, above all, a story about humanity, about processing change, and the struggle to find belonging, themes anyone can relate to. Additionally, Pearl Cleage's sensitive script does not paint any one character as a villain. Instead, it wisely posits the question of whether selfishness can truly exist without commeasurable knowledge and position.

The dense, deep story demands viewers' full attention; but there is also much visual appeal to appreciate. Melanie Burgess has crafted period-perfect costumes that run the gamut from sultry beaded sheaths to sensible suits and hats. Likewise, Matthew Smucker's open set is alludingly dollhouse-like in its design.


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

Audience members see everything, all at once, making them feel as if they have some control over where these characters' lives go ... only to have them discover that they don't, not at all, as the story draws to a surprising end.

Ultimately, this is a haunting production that will stay with viewers for a long time. It is also exactly the type of theater that the Triangle needs more of.


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. 15-18 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: https://www.youtube.com/user/PlayMakersRep1. 2022-23 SEASON: https://playmakersrep.org/season/2022-23/. PRC NEWS RELEASE: https://playmakersrep.org/press/playmakers-repertory-company-presents-blues-for-an-alabama-sky/. THE PRESENTER: https://playmakersrep.org/, https://www.facebook.com/playmakersrep, https://www.instagram.com/playmakersrep/, https://twitter.com/playmakersrep, and https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCO7crv41zzCYf9HxRDUEVdw. PRC BLOG: https://playmakersrep.org/about-us/our-blog/. THE VENUE: https://playmakersrep.org/about-us/paul-green-theatre/. DIRECTIONS/PARKING: https://playmakersrep.org/visitor-info/directions-and-parking/. CAROLINA TOGETHER COVID-19 PAGE: https://carolinatogether.unc.edu/. THE PLAY: https://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=2749 and https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/blues-alabama-sky. THE SCRIPT (excerpts): https://books.google.com/. THE PLAYWRIGHT: http://www.pearlcleage.net/, https://playmakersrep.org/artists/pearl-cleage/, https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/arts-culture/pearl-cleage-b-1948/, http://pearlcleageproject.weebly.com/meet-the-playwright.html, and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pearl_Cleage. NOTE 1: 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 2: 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 prcboxoffice@unc.edu. PLEASE DONATE TO: PlayMakers Repertory Company. Melissa Rooney's Review.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Susie Potter is a Raleigh, NC-based freelance writer and editor. She is a 2009 graduate of Raleigh's Meredith College, where she majored in English. She holds graduate degrees in teaching and American literature from North Carolina State University in Raleigh. She is an award-winning author of short fiction. Her works have appeared in The Colton Review, Raleigh Quarterly, Broken Plate Magazine, Big Muddy: A Journal of the Mississippi River Valley, the Chaffey Review, and Existere. To read more of Susie Potter's writings, click http://www.triangleartsreview.com/, http://www.susiepotter.com, and http://www.myspace.com/susiepotter.

 


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