McCarter Presents Harlem Renaissance-Set “Blues for an Alabama Sky”; Associate Artistic Director Nicole A. Watson Directs Pearl Cleage’s Drama
“BLUES FOR AN ALABAMA SKY”: McCarter Theatre Center will present “Blues for an Alabama Sky.” Written by Pearl Cleage, and directed by Associate Artistic Director Nicole A. Watson (above), the play will run May 6-28 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre. (Photo courtesy of McCarter Theatre)
By Donald H. Sanborn III
McCarter will present Blues for an Alabama Sky. Written by Pearl Cleage, the 1995 drama depicts a circle of friends living in a Depression-era apartment building amid the Harlem Renaissance. Performances start May 6.
New roommates — Angel, a recently fired blues singer; and Guy, a promising costume designer with Paris in his sights — live across the hall from Delia, a social worker “who sparks a relationship with the hardworking doctor Sam,” states McCarter’s website, summarizing the plot. “Their lives are upturned when Southern newcomer Leland arrives and falls hard for Angel, who is torn between a stable life in New York City and an exhilarating overseas adventure with Guy. Angel chooses her path, but the decision leads to devastating consequences that shift the trajectory of everyone’s futures and long-held dreams.”
Blues for an Alabama Sky marks the McCarter directorial debut of Associate Artistic Director Nicole A. Watson. Previously, Watson directed an acclaimed production that ran at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis earlier this year.
“This is a play where you can highlight many difference facets of it,” Watson remarks via Zoom. “The script itself is rich with things to talk about. It’s a character-driven play.” She adds that she started with the characters, and “this idea that they were friends whose relationships are complicated by this outsider.”
“From there, the play reveals all the different things that are complicating those relationships: religious differences, sexism, class, geographical differences, and political differences,” Watson continues. “You can be in community with people you don’t agree with, or you can choose not to. For me, the play highlights that ignorance is a choice.”
Later she adds, “But you don’t enter the play with that. You enter the play with getting to meet a group of people that you’re going to enjoy spending time with. That is the foundation of it.”
Actor Stephen Conrad Moore returns from the Guthrie production, playing the role of Sam. The remaining roles have been recast for McCarter. The cast includes Crystal Dickinson (Angel), Maya Jackson (Delia), Kevin R. Free (Guy), Brandon St. Clair (Leland), and Darian Dauchan (understudy).
The creative team — many of whom are veterans of the Guthrie production — includes: Costume Designer Sarita P. Fellows; Fight/Intimacy Director Teniece Divya Johnson; Lighting Designer Sherrice Mojgani; Scenic Designer Lawrence E. Moten III; Sound Designer Paul James Prendergast; Dramaturg Faye Price; and Dialect and Vocal Coach Kelly Wolter.
An April 13 Director’s Cut offered a glimpse into the rehearsal process. As a perk of membership at McCarter, the audience was given an opportunity to watch Watson direct the actors until the session’s conclusion, after which Director of Grants and Development Communications Molly Marinik hosted a conversation with Watson. In the course of that discussion it was revealed that Cleage has rewritten the last line of the play since its premiere.
“It’s just one line change, but I think it makes a difference to how you can understand what Angel is going through,” Watson says. “She asks rhetorically, ‘What is the cost to anyone — to a Black woman who can’t effect the changes that she wants to make?’ That’s what I’m interested in people thinking about: What are someone’s options in the world? It’s a misnomer to think that everyone has all the options all the time. That’s just not true. Things impact the options that we think we have.”
Recent Director’s Cuts have taken place comparatively late in the process, so the audience has been taken to the Berlind (or Matthews) Theatre. The event for this production, however, is hosted much earlier; the audience is taken to a rehearsal room. At this point, some actors still are referring to their scripts.
Furniture has been placed on the floor in approximation of the set, allowing Watson to incorporate it into her staging. (A subject of discussion is how far into a doorway an actor should stand before his character’s presence is known to the others.) The stage will be configured differently from the Guthrie production, because that 1,100-seat theater has a thrust stage, as opposed to the Berlind’s proscenium.
“A lot of the furniture pieces and props came from the Guthrie production, and that allowed us to have lots of things in the rehearsal room earlier” in the process,’ says Watson via Zoom. She adds that having this advantage is “important in this play, because people are living their lives in this apartment, and you want it to feel like home.”
At the time of this interview (April 28), the process of moving from the rehearsal room to the Berlind is imminent. “We move in tomorrow!” Watson enthuses. “We get a tour of the stage this morning, and then tomorrow we’ll spend the day on stage. It will be great to move into the theater.”
Watson observes that at McCarter the actors are handling the dynamics between the characters a bit differently from the Guthrie production. “The core of the relationships are still there, but I think … there’s a level of tenderness in the Guy/Angel scenes that is brand new and is in relationship to these two actors working together. That’s not to say that it was not there at the Guthrie; it’s just showing itself differently.”
She likens the two productions to different renditions of a song. “It’s still the same song, but it’s being sung a little bit differently.” She says that the process has yielded some “wonderful surprises; the actors are revealing who these characters are anew, and I’m like, ‘I didn’t know Delia had that in her! That’s a great way to tell that story.’”
Asked about her method of working with actors, and the direction she finds herself giving them, Watson emphasizes that the rehearsal process needs to be “a place for discovery. The play is revealing itself through these smart, talented actors, and you have to be in conversation about it. I know what I like; I have an overarching vision. There have been moments when we’ve tried something, and I’ve been like, ‘You know what? I feel pretty sure … this is how it has to work.’”
“I look at myself as the original audience member,” Watson explains, adding that she continually assesses whether, as a viewer, she is having “positive experience in the play” and whether the story feels clear. “It’s like making a puzzle; you’re putting all the pieces together.”
She is being careful not to let the Guthrie production constrain this cast. “I saw a completed thing in Minneapolis not too long ago. It would be wholly unfair of me to put that play onto these artists” and impose ”something that I learned, four weeks into a process, into their first or second week. The last thing I want to do is get in their way; I have too much respect and love for them to muck up their good work.”
Watson gratefully reflects that the process has been a “beautiful showcase for how I love to work … it makes me want to make more plays.” Pointing to budget constraints that limit many theater companies, she particularly appreciates the extent to which both the Guthrie and McCarter have been able to support her vision. “I made my case as to the ‘why’ of this, and they were both able to support it. It makes the work richer and stronger, to have that.”
Asked what she particularly wants audiences to know about Blues for an Alabama Sky, Watson responds that it makes for a “beautiful evening” of theater. “Pearl wrote a play, however many years ago, that is still relevant, still funny, still poignant — still worth our while, joining together to experience it.”
“It’s complete; it’s complicated; it’s rich,” Watson concludes. “You’re going to talk about it!”
Directed by Associate Artistic Director Nicole A. Watson, “Blues for an Alabama Sky” will play May 6-28 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre. McCarter’s website offers this advisory: “This production includes sexual/suggestive content, the use of a prop gun, a gunshot sound effect, and references to alcoholism, abortion, birth control, homophobia, and death caused by childbirth.” Masks are required for the performance on May 24 at 7:30 p.m. On Thursday, May 4 the Princeton Public Library will present McCarter Live at the Library: “How to Plan a Season,” a conversation between Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen and Director of Special Programming Paula Abreu. For tickets or additional information, visit McCarter.org.