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This review by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on October 14, 1998. All rights reserved.

Review: `Alabama Sky'

A single woman, sitting alone and directionless in the window of a Harlem apartment, is the quiet, closing image of Pearl Cleage's "Blues for an Alabama Sky." The ambitious drama about five "ordinary" women and men moving through their singular lives in Harlem during the summer of 1930 opened at Crossroads Theater last week and plays through Sunday, November 1. By play's end, we the audience, having accompanied these characters for seven weeks along their convoluted life paths, have learned much about our differences with their world of 70 years past -- and more still about our shared experiences.

This is Cleage's second play to have its New Jersey premiere at Crossroads. Her first, "Flyin' West," was presented during the 1993-'94 season. And if the Atlanta-based author's name is new to you now, it won't be for long. This month Cleage received Oprah Winfrey's golden touch when her first novel, "What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day," was selected as that television book club's October choice. This has been known to push an unknown author's book sales to more than 400,000 copies.

But whereas Cleage's novel is an up-to-date, '90s chronicle about a savvy, HIV-infected African-American woman, "Blues for an Alabama Sky" takes its audience deep into the social, political, and economic milieu of Depression-era Harlem. Directed by Walter Dallas in an exacting, realist style, this somewhat literal script earns our close attention but never quite takes flight.

Each of the play's five characters are beautifully delineated individuals armed with the hopes, fears, and fortitude appropriate to their life's moment. Angel (Gwendolyn Mulamba) is a cabaret singer who, until the play's opening scene, has lived under the protection of an Italian gangster. Now she's lost her home and her job and must join the legions of singers out looking for work. Angel moves temporarily onto a couch in the home of her cousin, Guy Jacobs (Scott Whitehurst), a wild, flamboyantly gay costume designer whose lavish dreams are sustained by the fantasy of working in Paris with the entertainment sensation, Josephine Baker. A secular shrine to "La Josephine," swathed in a scarlet feathered boa, dominates his apartment.

The witty and vivacious Guy contributes most fun to the dialogue, as when he complains about laboring every day "making costumes for chubby little chorus girls who keep lying to me about their weight." Gracefully and succinctly he describes how Angel lost her cabaret job by "cussing out a short-tempered gangster in the middle of an up-tempo number."

At the opposite end of the flamboyance spectrum is Guy's neighbor, Delia (La Tonya Borsay), a prim, 25-year-old social worker and disciple of the pioneering Margaret Sanger who dreams of establishing Sanger's third New York birth control clinic in Harlem. On the perimeter of these three lives is Dr. Sam Thomas (Ron Dortch), a middle-aged obstetrician who, on his off hours, would rather "let the good times roll" than catch up on needed sleep. Stumbling into the midst of this urban quartet is Leeland Cunningham (Donavin Dain Scott), a carpenter recently arrived from his home in rural Alabama to escape painful memories of family loss.

Langston Hughes, Josephine Baker, the Reverend Adam Powell, and Sanger are the giants behind the scenes whose lives and dreams mingle with the hopes and fears of these everyday characters. But Cleage's portrait of this moment in history when the Depression killed Harlem's fabled night life is, by definition, tough. Among its poignant moments is Angel's description of passing entire families sitting in the street who have been evicted from their homes, and Guy's first-hand experience of gay-bashing by young thugs.

As events unfold, we learn to admire, respect, or just plain like some characters more than others. All are fairly drawn, and the ensemble acting, which will surely ripen over the course of the production, is strong and believable. Cleage belabors certain story lines, such as a long buildup to Angel's nightclub audition, that don't necessarily propel the plot forward, whereas some more dramatic moments speed by. And although the mood is heightened by period costume and music, the sensual qualities of this faraway world remain elusive.

Scenic design by Felix Chochren gives us an exacting (and ingenious) view of two adjoining apartments that is so packed with detail it is fully engaging for the play's almost three-hour duration.

Although Cleage's Harlem denizens are supposed to be urbane by the standards of the late '20s, their language is unremarkable -- in this respect they seem a bit too much like us. Yet given the weighty issues the playwright is determined to tackle here -- issues that far surpass the usual "she loves me, she loves me not" plot line -- one can excuse a lack of poetry for Cleage's galvanizing story of difficult choices told with grace.

-- Nicole Plett

Blues for an Alabama Sky, Crossroads Theater, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-249-5560. $27 to $35. Through Sunday, November 1.


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