Arts, Culture & Entertainment

Honest and beautifully crafted characters pull together “Blues for an Alabama Sky”

The show at the Mark Taper Forum pulls the audience in with its characters worth fighting for and it’s story that reflects reality.

Dennis Pearson leans over to Nija Okoro who is sitting in a rocking chair

He talked with a smooth voice and had a promising look about him. He was a gentleman. For Angel, that’s all she wanted out of Leland. But as she sat in a rocking chair, looking up at his bright smile with a future in his eyes, she realized it might not be the future she wanted. The stage narrows into focus and the clutter of the apartment becomes a small smudge. Angel opens her mouth and nothing comes out. Then the words do.

“Blues for an Alabama Sky” by Pearl Cleage depicted a group of friends and neighbors in Harlem, New York in the summer of 1930 trying to make their dreams come true. Angel (Nija Okoro) wants to be a successful singer, Guy (Greg Alverez Reid) wants to be Josephine Baker’s designer, Delia (Kim Steele) wants to get her woman’s clinic on its feet and Sam (Joe Holt) wants to keep being the favorite family doctor. However, when an unexpected character, Leland (Dennis Pearson), comes around, some start looking for new routes to bring their dreams into reality.

The play is led wholeheartedly by the characters and their experiences, pulling people in with every decision they make. So much so that by the climax of the show, a deep gasp is shared by the audience. The theater is revered for putting a mirror to society, but this time around it lands a little stronger. Although the show went up on April 6 at the Mark Taper Forum, as it closes its run, a draft opinion by the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade was leaked and published by Politico on May 2. The threat to abortion rights in the U.S. reflects the same struggles of Angel in “Blues for an Alabama Sky.”

After learning of an unplanned pregnancy, she has to decide what is best for herself. Her inner conflict is read across her face. Okoro’s comedic quips and impeccable physical comedy are contrasted by a stillness and hunger for a way out. She learned the true personality of the Alabama boy Leland who swept her off her feet and she can’t think of another way to her dream. She turned to abortion and planned a secret way to find it, but her unprecedented reality is one that could’ve been evaded had she had the resources.

It’s hard to look away from the rough path set in front of her. Angel’s sweet relationship and connection to Leland becomes one of regret. She fends for herself and quickly becomes the villain of the friend group, but as an outsider looking in, we can tell her betrayal is difficult to scold. Cleage does incredibly well at ensuring we don’t hate Angel, and Okoro portrays her character in all her complexities to support it.

Dennis Pearson holds onto Nija Okoro who is struggling to understand him. She looks away.

Other remarkable characters include Guy, a gay fashion designer who gets down on his luck, yet persists in his designs to prove to Josephine Baker that he is the right designer for her. His character is a breath of fresh air, being someone who is unapologetically himself, and blatantly lets everyone know. He stands firm in not changing for anyone. Delia comes off as a mother-like figure, making sure everyone else is cared for. As she brings her clinic up on its feet, she starts fighting for herself. By the end, Steele takes the spotlight as each of her small moments on set translates into a crushing goodbye that captures the audience.

The successful Sam who prides himself on “letting the good times roll” has an unexpected arc. His character starts choppy, but he finds himself with his relationship to Delia. Holt’s performance only touches the surface of Sam’s complexities until the moment he realizes his attraction to Delia.

The world, which is crafted by scenic designer John Iacovelli and lighting designer Elizabeth Harper, turns the jarring shape of the apartment complex into an easy-to-follow land. The set is an open stage with portions blocked off to depict each apartment and hallway. It takes a while to realize these spaces, but as lighting directs the viewer’s attention, it becomes clear where each spot is. Soon, it feels as if we are being guided by a camera.

The cast of "Blues for an Alabama Sky" are having a gathering together in Guy's apartment, having tea.

Guy’s apartment is particularly important to the story because every detail feels Parisian, from the furniture to the stacked books on the desk. It becomes clear that Guy had been manifesting his transition to his Parisian fantasy for a while. We watch as he dreams of a world across the water, and we root for him every step of the way. When he finally gets his one-way ticket, it feels like the biggest win. As he takes his final steps out of the apartment, cheers erupted from the audience. It is the biggest reward and the crispest air created in the show.

And slowly, we are brought back to the reality of Angel’s Harlem. She sits at the window sill like she always does, waves her fan and looks out a bit more jaded and a bit more hungry. While we are disgusted by her actions, we also sit in a puddle of sympathy because we see her past written in her eyes and in the headlines today.

It feels like a bittersweet goodbye that begs for a solution we have yet to reach.

“Blues for an Alabama Sky” ran at the Mark Taper Forum until May 8. More information can be found on Center Theatre Group’s website.