May 17, 2023

A New York Singer Faces Painful Choices in “Blues for an Alabama Sky”; McCarter Offers a Dazzling Production of Pearl Cleage’s Compelling Script

“BLUES FOR AN ALABAMA SKY”: Performances are underway for “Blues for an Alabama Sky.” Written by Pearl Cleage, and directed by Associate Artistic Director Nicole A. Watson, the play runs through May 28 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre. Above, from left, close friends Sam (Stephen Conrad Moore), Guy (Kevin R. Free), Delia (Maya Jackson), and Angel (Crystal A. Dickinson) face a major disruption when a conservative Southerner falls for Angel. (Photo by Matt Pilsner)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

McCarter is presenting Blues for an Alabama Sky. Deftly written by Pearl Cleage, the 1995 drama depicts a tight-knit circle of friends living in a Harlem apartment building in 1930.

The title reflects an unlikely relationship between two of the protagonists. The bohemian neighbors’ lives are upended when a free-spirited blues singer and nightclub performer, Angel (portrayed by Crystal A. Dickinson) is pursued by Leland (Brandon St. Clair), a conservative, religious widower from Tuskegee — who only has been in Harlem for a few weeks.

In a program note, Dramaturg Faye M. Price notes that the time setting captures a period of “great transition for African Americans, from the creative exhilaration of the Harlem Renaissance to the despair of the Great Depression to the migration from the Jim Crow South to cities in the North.”

Cleage probes a confluence of social issues: homophobia, racism, sexism, and reproductive rights. The compelling script — by turns funny and poignant — accomplishes this by letting events unfold as the characters, with vastly divergent worldviews and priorities, interact and collide.

Blues for an Alabama Sky marks the successful McCarter directorial debut of Associate Artistic Director Nicole A. Watson, who previously helmed an acclaimed production that ran at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis earlier this year.

What makes both the script and staging succeed so completely is that from beginning to end, there is a consistent, sharp focus on character and theme. Every line of dialogue, movement, and production element is chosen with precision.

Sound Designer Paul James Prendergast lets jazz music pervade the theater before and during the play. Angel begins the action by dancing exuberantly. A “Cotton Club” sign is above her head.

“The Cotton Club was a whites-only nightclub where Black workers and performs had to come through the back door. Black patrons weren’t welcome in the space to enjoy the music,” Watson writes in a program note. “These realities impacted the art that was created. You can’t divorce the artistic expression from the oppression. Pearl’s powerful play invites us to put those two things back together and consider the complexity of our history.”

This fusion of realty and art seems to be explored theatrically. Shortly after Angel dances, the curtain behind her rises — revealing her apartment, which Scenic Designer Lawrence E. Moten III furnishes in elaborate detail.

Angel’s opening dance leads into a scene in which we learn that she has lost her job. Her roommate and friend, an uninhibited costume designer named Guy (Kevin R. Free) also is unemployed, but aspires to design dresses for singer and dancer Josephine Baker, in Paris. A huge photograph of Baker looms above the stage. It aids in establishing the time period, and it also symbolizes expectations. Guy hopes to work for Baker; Angel wants to emulate her.

Guy and Angel’s neighbor, Delia (Maya Jackson), is a social worker who is attempting to launch a family planning clinic in Harlem. Their friend (and Delia’s love interest) Sam (Stephen Conrad Moore) is an obstetrician.

Leland courts Angel, who reminds him of his late wife. Inevitably, and almost immediately, there is a culture clash between Angel’s friends and Leland. Guy warns Angel, “Alabama isn’t just a state. It’s a state of mind.” Early on, Leland’s disruption of the status quo is subtle but palpable when he moves furniture in the apartment so that he can sit with Angel, facing away from the others.

Eventually, Angel is forced to choose between pursuing a professional opportunity overseas with Guy, or living a conventional domestic life with Leland. This leads to a painful decision that meets with a violent reaction.

Cleage’s script is marked by an obvious love of language. A poetic command of words is evident when Sam offers to “wear two-tone shoes and play the baritone sax.” Guy’s urbane wisecrack, “Women always lie about their ages and their hips” and “men lie about everything else” is worthy of Dorothy Parker.

The play has seen changes to its ending. In an interview for the May 3 Town Topics, Watson tells this writer, “It’s just one line change, but I think it makes a difference to how you can understand what Angel is going through.” In an interview with the Guthrie’s Johanna Buch (reprinted in the McCarter program), Cleage clarifies, “The ending we now use is the original ending!” Previously, budget cuts necessitated the elimination of a character whom Angel meets; here, the “New Gentleman” is played by St. Clair, in a dual role.

The cast is uniformly excellent. As Angel, Dickinson — who has an attractive singing voice — carries herself in a dignified, slightly haughty manner that highlight’s the character’s determination to be a star. This notably changes as Angel starts to become more conflicted between the world of her friends and that of Leland; her body language resembles the purposeful strides that pervade Jackson’s portrayal of Delia.

At one point Guy (who is gay, and frequently clashes with the homophobic Leland) delivers an applause-stealing speech about his determination to “walk where I please, wearing what I please, whenever I please.” This aplomb informs Free’s entire performance; he lets Guy confidently and smoothly glide around the stage.

This is matched by the debonair but dangerously brooding reserve with which St. Clair infuses Leland. The character’s hat often is used as a shield with which he tries to keep at bay the strange new world in which he finds himself. Moore lets Sam project affable sincerity.

Watson notably underlines Leland’s outsider status — which becomes crucial when Angel faces some painful choices — through strategic use of the space. Whereas Angel and her friends comfortably occupy the stage, Leland initially walks on the edge of it, approaching it from the audience. Later, as Angel starts to become more immersed in Leland’s world, we see her move in the opposite direction — offstage, into the audience.

Costume Designer Sarita P. Fellows — whose outfits greatly aid the actors in making the characters distinctive — and Lighting Designer Sherrice Mojgani develop this concept further. Guy — who, almost more than any other character (except Angel) personifies cosmopolitan Harlem, wears a bright pink vest that matches some of the lighting that bathes the apartment wall, against which can be seen the silhouette of a jazz trumpeter. Leland wears a more conservative suit whose color scheme somewhat resembles the curtain.

Leland gives Angel a drab dress, the sight of which would cause the flamboyant Guy to have a fit. Angel, who previously has worn dresses (including a bright red one) that match her passionate personality, gives a horrified look that succinctly expresses her feelings. It is obvious that the new, exaggeratedly modest dress signifies a role that Leland expects Angel to play.

Later, Angel has cut a slit into the dress that allows her to expose her legs. If she wears the dress, she is resolved to imprint her personality on it. This prefigures a line of dialogue — spoken at a point when Angel makes a crucial choice — in which she expresses her unwavering determination to “live free.”

Blues for an Alabama Sky has a unity of script and production that is as tight-knit as the friendship that the play depicts. It makes one look forward to future McCarter productions directed by Watson.

Directed by Associate Artistic Director Nicole A. Watson, “Blues for an Alabama Sky” runs through May 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. For tickets or additional information, visit