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"Blues For An Alabama Sky" Shines in Princeton


By Gary Wien

originally published: 05/15/2023

"Blues For An Alabama Sky" Shines in Princeton

Stephen Conrad Moore, Kevin R. Free, Maya Jackson and Crystal A. Dickinson. Photo by Matt Pilsner

Champagne flows, tears fall, and shots are fired in Blues For An Alabama Sky, a play set in a Harlem apartment building during the Depression. It’s a play about a group of dreamers, but the dream takes on a very dark turn.

McCarter Theatre is presenting Blues For An Alabama Sky by Pearl Cleage now through May 28.  The production marks the McCarter directorial debut of Associate Artistic Director Nicole A. Watson. The fine ensemble cast includes Crystal A. Dickinson (Angel), Kevin R. Free (Guy), Maya Jackson (Delia), Stephen Conrad Moore (Sam), and Brandon St. Clair (Leland).  The cast is terrific and the direction is wonderful.

The play begins with Angel “celebrating” being dumped by her gangster boyfriend, kicked out of where she was living, and fired from her singing gig.  Angel has a way of portraying an outward appearance that is very different from what she is feeling inside.

“If you can’t be drunk in Harlem, where the hell can you be drunk?” says Angel who is with Guy, a costume designer who has been sending designs to Josephine Baker in Paris with the hope that she will bring him to France and hire him. A stranger with a Southern accent appears and helps Guy walk the staggering Angel home.  Both Guy and Angel are attracted to the handsome stranger.



 
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The stage consists of two apartments - Delia, a social worker who hopes to create a family planning center in Harlem is on one side, with Guy’s apartment on the other.  Guy takes Angel in as his new roommate and promises to bring her to Paris with him.  Paris is a just dream for Angel, but is Guy's reason for existing. He believes he can make that dream come true.

Angel wakes up with an awful hangover the next day. Their friend, Sam, who is a doctor, arrives with some aspirin and moonshine that was a gift from a new father of twins.

“How come we never got together?” Angel asks Sam.

“Because you deserve better,” replies Sam.

Sam is an interesting character.  He spends most of his time working at the hospital, delivering babies and removing bullets from gunshot wounds.  In his spare time, he likes to live it up.  His mantra is “let the good times roll.”

Sam’s lifestyle is the exact opposite of Delia’s. Despite having little to no experience with the opposite sex, her focus is on creating a family planning center in the area and making sure women have access to birth control.  She’s working on a speech to gain support for the center that she will present to her Church.  When Doc presses Delia about why it’s important to her she says, “A woman shouldn’t have to have a baby every time they make love.”

“Is that what you’re going to tell the deacons?” Sam laughs. "No!" she replies.



 
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The Southern gentleman returns to check up on Angel.  We learn his name is Leeland and that he is apparently interested in Angel. Leeland meets everybody and asks Sam if he is really a doctor because he’s never met a negro doctor before.

“Well, stick around and you never know what you’ll see,” jokes Guy.

"Blues For An Alabama Sky" Shines in Princeton

Brandon St. Clair and Crystal A. Dickinson. Photo by Matt Pilsner

Angel reminds Leeland of his former wife who died a few year ago.  She catches him staring at her.  “You looking for somebody… or just looking?” she teases. Despite an inner lack of confidence, Angel continues to play the part of a woman in control.  Harlem is full of people singing the blues and Angel is tired of competing.  She’s been fired from several clubs already, which limits her options.  Paris is a fantasy for Angel. She believes Josephine Baker is just stringing Guy along as his tickets to Paris are always one more shipment of dresses away. She longs for stability.  Seeing Leeland as a potential beau, she sets up a Sunday stroll with him.

During the stroll they start asking each other questions, one at a time.  Angel learns Leeland is in Harlem visiting a cousin. He is an avid churchgoer, she is not.  He learns that she is a singer.

“Do you sing church music?” asks Leeland.

“No,” she replies. She sings in night clubs and juke joints.

“Maybe I’ll come see you sing sometime,” says Leeland.

“It won’t be church music…” says Angel.

“Then I won’t come on a Sunday,” replies Leeland.

The first act is extremely funny with many great one liners. The dialogue flows in the way the 80s television show, Moonlighting, brought rapid fire interchanges between Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd — everything from funny lines to observational with sexual tension throughout.

"Blues For An Alabama Sky" Shines in Princeton

Stephen Conrad Moore, Kevin R. Free and Maya Jackson. Photo by Matt Pilsner



 
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There is a wonderful dichotomy of characters - the type of blend you will likely see thrown together in a city.  You’ve got Angel as the rambunctious singer who has spent her life in bars with gangsters and Leeland as the religious, teetotaler. There’s Sam, a workaholic doctor who parties as hard as he works and Delia, a quiet, reserved woman. And there’s Guy, the flamboyant costume designer with a dream.

They are all dreamers in their own way.  Angel dreams of having someone take care of her; Leeland dreams of another chance to have the life that taken away from him when his wife and son died; Sam dreams of falling in love; Delia dreams of making a difference; and Guy dreams of a better and more accepting world abroad.

While the first act is extremely funny, the second is extremely serious. The problems faced by these characters are stories out of today’s news: abortion, alcoholism, homophobia, and religious views.  Harlem is a place for dreamers, but as reality bears down the dream becomes escape. And then a tragedy changes their lives forever.

Blues For An Alabama Sky is a very entertaining play.  In a way it’s like two plays or maybe a 45 single with an A and B side that are very different songs from the same artist.  The first act entertains you while the second act makes you think.  It’s a nice combination.  If you’re looking for a play that has more than meets the eye, make plans to see this one. 



Blues For An Alabama Sky runs May 6-28, 2023 at McCarter Theatre Center (91 University Place) in Princeton, New Jersey.  Click here for more information or to purchase tickets.

"Blues For An Alabama Sky" Shines in Princeton

Crystal A. Dickinson, Kevin R. Free. Photo by Matt Pilsner



Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Upstage Magazine, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at gary@newjerseystage.com.

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