Theater Review - Blues for an Alabama Sky takes skeptical look at Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance, like the era of the founding fathers, looms so large in America's cultural history that any criticism of it can sound almost sacrilegious. True Colors Theatre Company's Blues for an Alabama Sky, written by Pearl Cleage, earns credibility for its skeptical depiction of artists and social activists in 1930s Harlem. The play drops famous names like Langston Hughes, but doesn't gloss over the decades' problems, which included pitched political arguments, gay-bashing and crushing unemployment.

The irony of Cleage's play is it depicts one of the most artistically robust times and places in African-American history, yet the two main characters plan on leaving it. Gay costume designer Guy (Eric Ware, fabulous in all senses of the word) can't wait to abandon New York for the refinement of Paris. He waits — possibly in vain — for legendary dancer Josephine Baker to send for him. Guy promises to care for Angel (Jasmine Guy), a reckless nightclub singer left homeless when her gangster boyfriend ditches her. "He didn't dump me, he got married," Angel explains. Jasmine Guy proves to be a magnetic performer and looks great in Shilla Benning's costumes. But she tends to overplay Angel, relying on eye-rolling punctuation for the character's jokes or emotional beats.

Blues for an Alabama Sky features a crusading social worker (Cynthia D. Barker), a hard-partying but saintly doctor (Joel Ishman), and a Southern carpenter (Benjamin Brown) with a crush on Angel and reactionary ideas that clash with her bohemian values. While all the characters have at least two dimensions, the script divides them a little too neatly into saints, sinners and hypocrites. The play feels more like a well-researched melodrama than one of August Wilson's thematically rich period pieces. Under Andrea Frye's direction, the likeable cast wins over the audience, but the action also feels drawn out. It's a perfectly accomplished show, but not exactly in a hurry.

Kenny Leon directed the play's world premiere at the Alliance Theatre as part of Atlanta's 1996 Cultural Olympiad. Thirteen years later, Leon's True Colors Theatre presents a new production, which may herald another kind of cultural flowering. Blues for an Alabama Sky is one of the first productions at the Southwest Arts Center, which features a 27-acre campus and an impressive 375-seat performing space. It could easily become a welcome nexus for creativity for Atlanta's Southern neighborhoods. You can never have one Renaissance too many.

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