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Blues for an Alabama Sky at the Lyttelton Theatre

Angel Allen (Samira Wiley) is sick of what she calls Negro dreams, because all they do is cause heartbreak. This isn’t, however, an attack on white people – there aren’t any on stage – but it’s telling that the American Dream is not an aspiration for this group of people living in Harlem, New York, and it seems to be left to the audience to determine whether the Great Depression is a major factor, or if race relations meant the American Dream didn’t apply to everybody regardless of what was going on in the stock markets. Guy Jacobs (Giles Terera) wants out, and what begins as an ambition to make it big time in his chosen career overseas eventually becomes a bona fide move to Paris, France.

Sule Rimi (Sam) and Samira Wiley (Angel) in Blues for an Alabama Sky. Photo by Marc Brenner
Sule Rimi (Sam) and Samira Wiley (Angel) in Blues for an Alabama Sky. Photo by Marc Brenner.

The play considers, on several levels, the enemy within. When Delia Patterson (Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo) sets out to start a birth control clinic, there is substantial opposition, mostly but not entirely from religionists – Sam Thomas (Sule Rimi), a doctor, subtly suggests to Patterson that she just might want to deploy some tact and diplomacy when promoting the clinic to the local pastor and his parishioners. She obliges. Leland Cunningham (Osy Ikhile), meanwhile, is a carpenter from Alabama, visiting relatives in New York. Having assisted Jacobs to bring Allen home one night after she (Allen) had far too much to drink, Cunningham falls in love with her, which is why he pays her a repeat visit. And another one. And another one. And so on. But his evangelical conservative outlook leads to some dire consequences.

The dialogue has plenty of enjoyable moments, particularly in the various choices of clothes for various occasions (Jacobs, a fashion designer, has little time for anything frumpy or plain) and in the courtships that go on – this production is proof that the National Theatre doesn’t (as it has done in the past) have to resort to full frontal nudity for an audience to understand bedroom activity is about to commence. The times are a-changing, with the interwar Harlem Renaissance starting to draw to a close. It being an American play, there’s a gun. When Cunningham eventually fires it, yes, it’s against the person. It is also an attack on the values the Harlemites share, as well as showing Cunningham up to be an utter hypocrite, a self-confessed ‘God-fearing’ man who possesses none of the ‘love one another’ philosophy of the God he claims to serve.

There are a few songs in the show, too, which allow the actors to display some hearty and beautiful singing voices. Set entirely in an apartment block, including the front door and surrounding sidewalks, there’s arguably too much in the way of exposition, with characters describing events that have already happened, depriving the audience of, say, an altercation that Jacobs had with some homophobes, or any of the various nights out he, or anyone else, enjoys.

Still, it’s remarkable how resonant the play is to contemporary society, and I’m not just talking about economic upheaval. There may be some typically contrasting characters – the larger than life (in more ways than one) Jacobs is so vastly different to the vulnerable Allen that it makes the show as a whole come across as more than a little contrived. But the personality clashes, and the work that goes into making friendships, let alone relationships work, are very relatable. Abortion rights are a hot topic once again in the United States, and what the likes of Delia Patterson fought so bravely for back in the day remains far from resolved. What’s great about this production is that you get to know these characters so very well. Both traditional theatre faces, that of tragedy and comedy, loom large in this fascinating and absorbing experience.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

To realise our dreams, we must wake up.

New York, 1930.

Following a decade of creative explosion, the Harlem Renaissance is starting to feel the bite of the Great Depression.

In the face of hardship and dwindling opportunity, Angel and her friends battle to keep their artistic dreams alive.

But, when Angel falls for a stranger from Alabama, their romance forces the group to make good on their ambitions, or give in to the reality of the time.

Blues for an Alabama Sky
by Pearl Cleage
From 21 September to 5 November
Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes including a 20 minute interval
https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/

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