Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Blues for an Alabama Sky"

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note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi


"BLUES FOR AN ALABAMA SKY"

by Pearl Cleage

directed by Jeffrey Robinson

Angel Allen … Jacqui Parker
Guy Jacobs … Dorian Christian-Baucum
Delia Patterson … Stephanie Marson-Lee
Sam Thomas … Michael Green
Leland Cunningham … Ricardo Engermann

The Christmas gifts continue to roll in ahead of time: recently I saw Jacqui Parker and Ricardo Engermann back in each others’ arms --- onstage, that is. Ms. Parker and Mr. Engermann, who were so good, so moving, in Lyric Stage’s production of THE OLD SETTLER several seasons ago, are together once again in Our Place Theatre’s production of Pearl Cleage’s BLUES FOR AN ALABAMA SKY. Besides being graced by this excellent duo, there are other parallels between the two productions: both are bittersweet dramas set in a vanished Harlem (BLUES: the 1930s; SETTLER: the 1940s) and both plots deal with a woman being courted by an ardent (and younger) admirer from the Deep South. In terms of box office, however, BLUE’s nearest kin could prove to be the Zeitgeist’s sadly ignored production of BEE-LUTHER-HATCHEE and so, in a season where silver bells go ring-a-ling, you may hear the loud, relentless BOOM…BOOM…BOOM of a drum --- my own.

Ms. Cleage sets her BLUES at the close of the Harlem Renaissance, when the Depression had sharply curtailed the area’s legendary nightlife and the wealthy (white) patrons stopped coming. Angel Allen (played by Ms. Parker), a nightclub singer, and Guy, a flamboyantly open homosexual and her platonic soul-mate, are currently down on their luck: Angel has been dumped by an Italian gangster and promptly fired for causing a scene in the nightclub; Guy has been tossed out alongside her. The two friends had originally come up from Savannah, seeing Harlem as the Great Good Place; Guy’s gaze is now fixed on Paris, where he hopes the Folies Bergère will send for him to design costumes for Josephine Baker (a remote acquaintance). Angel is torn between her own dreams: (1) living her life as she so chooses, i.e., singing; and (2) aware that the clock is ticking, finding a good man to settle down with; i.e., “a rent check that won’t bounce.” Angel’s second dream arrives in the person of one Leland Cunningham (played by Mr. Engermann), a deeply religious Alabama man who sees Angel as the spitting image of his dead wife. Rounding out the cast of characters are Guy’s neighbor, Delia Patterson, who wants to open a family-planning clinic in Harlem with Margaret Sanger; and Sam (“Doc”) Thomas, a fun-loving yet compassionate doctor who has birthed countless babies and will perform the occasional (illegal) abortion.

Jeffrey Robinson has directed a good, solid production for Our Place though it does grind to a stop between scene changes, and Ms. Cleage must take the blame for those blackouts during which the audience can hear the cast tiptoeing on and off in the dark: it is one thing to write a screenplay where dissolves can take care of Time and Space; it’s quite another when writing for the stage and using “round” actors --- what can a director do when the lights come down on one tableau and must come up again on a new one in the same room, or a character finishes a scene Right Here and then must immediately re-enter Over There, wearing a different outfit and breathing evenly as if days, not seconds, have passed? Susan Davis’ set design slows down the proceedings even further. Granted, Ms. Cleage does present a challenge, calling for two brownstone apartments (Guy’s and Delia’s) divided by a hallway, an outside stoop, a street, and a window in Guy’s apartment facing the audience so that characters inside can call out to passersby. Angles and scrims or a skeletal outline could possibly give BLUES the cinematic flow it calls for; but Ms. Davis’ set is solid, four-square, and all-enveloping with its hallway starting upstage center and ending on the stoop right at the audience’s feet. Those characters entering from the stage left side of the street must come downstage alongside the set, walk in front of the audience and up that endless hallway --- all of the set’s doors are upstage --- stage right entrances are made from the hallway leading in from the lobby (the actors must do quite a bit of sprinting backstage). All in all, it can take a good fifteen seconds for a character to get into one of those apartments, and, as any actor who has ever missed a cue will tell you, fifteen seconds in stage-time is an eternity. The only way for Mr. Robinson’s actors to exit is to retrace their steps, and that hallway then becomes a fashion ramp with those upon it upstaging scenes being played in the apartments they have just departed from (amazing how a set can hinder even actors with crack timing).

Yet all of the above --- the set, the blackouts, the play’s structure --- everything paled upon seeing Ms. Parker and Mr. Engermann back together again. Granted, the joy I felt was due in part to my first seeing them as Elizabeth and Husband in THE OLD SETTLER, followed by the new joy that they still had “it” as Angel and Leland; if this BLUES had been a foreign-language production I would have thought it to be a sequel, with the sadder-but-wiser suitor coming back to the woman who had since gone on to become more worldly and embittered, yet still hopeful. Their first BLUES duet (Romeo in the street; Juliet at her window) had a sudden immediacy and magic that made all that preceded it seem a closed bud awaiting the sun, and their growing relationship, wry (Angel) and shy (Leland), had me wishing that these two lonely hearts would make it together this time, even when the plot’s growing darkness began closing in on them.

While watching this production, I couldn’t tell how Ms. Cleage wants us to view Angel, who blows hot and cold with our sympathy. Is Angel a born survivor or a self-destructive loser; a selfish bitch or a beloved albatross? (Guy’s final action speaks volumes.) Ms. Parker plays Angel with warm commonsense throughout the evening; even her seductiveness comes off as maternal, not earthy --- a classy actress not wishing to get her hands too, too dirty --- though she does have a startling moment when the mask slips: Angel returns to Guy’s apartment after an “audition”. She is unaware of Leland, who has been sitting there, waiting to take her to dinner. Angel gargles with champagne and spits it out --- did she perform fellatio at her assignation? Leland says, “Angel?” Angel, startled, whirls around and snaps, “Are you spying on me?” and Ms. Parker read that line with the stark, caged look of an addict. Had Ms. Parker and her director chosen to portray Angel as an alcoholic (she makes her first entrance, dead drunk), it would have justified the mood swings (and Ms. Cleage’s ambivalence) of the woman’s character. Leland as written is more firmly planted and thus Mr. Engermann’s evolving (and involving) portrayal is more convincing, starting off as a gentle widower and hardening into a cold angel of justice.

Michael Green, a handsome, friendly actor, makes a handsome, friendly doctor, so much so that when Angel asks “Doc” why they never became lovers and he replies, “Because you deserve better,” some may disagree --- this “Doc” is very much a catch. On the other hand, Dorian Christian-Baucum and Stephanie Marson-Lee need to relax onstage: Mr. Christian-Baucum plays Guy flamboyantly all right but aggressively so, without a drop of tenderness --- when his Guy implied he carries a razor on his person, I believed him; and, aside from one lovely moment, Ms. Marson-Lee’s Delia is so stiff that I could picture “Doc” picking her up by the ankles and laying her on the bed like a plank. That one moment came in Act Two when “Doc” asks Delia, “Do you want to be in love?” and when Delia answers, “Yes. Don’t you?”, Ms. Marson-Lee suddenly relaxed and glowed into prettiness, causing me to sit up and stare at her transformation. Once Ms. Marson-Lee finds her “center” as an actress she might become one of those rare birds who may not have to do much to make an impression --- she could simply BE; Eleanora Duse was said to have that quality --- spiritual, not technical. Some may argue, “But glowing into prettiness does not an actor make,” to which I will reply, “Yes, but Great Moments in the theatre are exactly that --- Moments.” Ms. Marson-Lee gave me a Moment, and giving an audience more and more of these Moments does indeed an actor (and an artist) make.

And then there’s the audience, who could help turn this good production into a better one --- that is, if it comes to the BCA in the first place --- and the audience this production needs first and foremost is a black one.

One of the reasons why I found the Lyric’s THE OLD SETTLER so satisfying was that its audience simply loved that play, and they let the actors know it, too. I attended the final performance --- a Sunday matinee --- the house was packed and predominately black. As SETTLER progressed, members of the audience started talking back to the characters onstage. At first I thought they were not only rude but were out to blow the actors’ concentration, but I couldn’t have been farther from the truth: those weren’t catcalls being bounced off the actors; the audience was talking back because it believed so much in what they saw and heard that they became a Greek Chorus, voicing their opinions; the actors in turn relaxed, “came home” and simply brought down the house --- they were riding on the pleasure that surged up from out there in the dark. It was an incredible performance --- one of the best I’ve ever seen. On the night I attended BLUES FROM AN ALABAMA SKY, Ms. Parker, Mr. Engermann and the others faced eight of us in the audience --- seven white, one black --- and they played pretty much to a void (white audiences, as a rule, are deathly silent, laugh and applaud on cue and give standing ovations as if stuck with a pin --- there were no ovations at BLUE’s curtain calls). The cast, of course, gave it their all and are not at fault if it appeared to be an “off” night --- they had hardly anyone to play to.

Where is the audience for BLUES FOR AN ALABAMA SKY? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I suspect white audiences stayed away from BEE-LUTHER-HATCHEE because the play dealt with racial issues, and black audiences stayed away because the playwright and the director were both white. Well, here’s a black theatre company that has produced a play by a black playwright and directed by a black director and performed by a black cast --- so why the low returns at the box office thus far? Hence my banging my drum harder than usual: Ms. Parker and Mr. Engermann are not to be and should not be missed --- if they are, may they be brought together again soon --- why not as Shaw’s Candida and Marchbanks?

A Christmas wish: before it closes, I want to see this production of BLUES performed before a packed house, predominantly black, and to see those waves of pleasure once again washing over the stage. I saw it happen at the Lyric Stage --- I saw it! And it can happen again at the BCA.

BOOM…BOOM…BOOM. BOOM…BOOM…BOOM.

"Blues for an Alabama Sky" (4-21 December)
THE OUR PLACE THEATRE PROJECT, INC.
Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 426-2787

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