Blues For An Alabama Sky @ National Theatre, London

Harlem. 1930s New York. Struggles. Dreams. Jazz. Living Hopper moments. And Giles Terera…

I was so fortunate to see Pearl Cleage’s play. Staged in a doll’s house-like tenement, characters move easily in and out of each other’s apartments and the streets. On the ground floor are designer Guy (Giles Terera) and his friend Angel who wants a fine life at any cost. We first meet them when Angel has been thrown out of her apartment and job for speaking out against her Italian mobster boyfriend. Drunk and dejected, Guy has rescued Angel (Helena Pipe) once again and plans to send his designs to Josephine Baker in Paris and get accepted as her costumier and head onto the city of dreams. Humoursly drunk, down and out Angel amazes with her big and beautiful voice, and desire to live well.

Across the hall is sweetly shy public health promoter Delia (Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo) and her growing romance with Doctor Sam (Sule Rimi), a fixture of the neighbourhood, delivering babies. Guy is horrified by Delia’s wardrobe, but she’s a practical woman, working long hours until courted by Sam.

The four hang out together, laugh, have fun, enjoy singing, dancing, a dinner, partying and we see their relationships deepen. Guy doesn’t tell Angel that he’s deeply in debt and can’t pay the bills until an eviction notice arrives. Joined together in their dreams since working in a brothel, Angel wants fame and luxury and will do anything to get it. She spies a Southern gentleman caller in smooth suited and respectably hatted Leland Cunningham, a good and upright Christian visiting from Alabama, and thinks that he will be her way out. Their meeting is seductively romantic — very Tennessee Williams, and like a Hopper painting brought to life. Surely things will get better now? And he’ll treat her right?

Only it turns out that he isn’t — in a flattened stereotype, he’s prejudiced against Guy, against any kind of dressiness, against the flamboyance of this close-knit neighbourhood and their free and easy ways, and against who Angel really is, really likes guns and deeply grieves the loss of his wife and child. Perhaps he too thinks Angel is his way out — she uncannily looks like his dead wife and deludes himself or wishes her into being again.

Angel, it turns out, is no angel but a user — using Delia’s beautiful unworn red dress gift for her audition; using her gentleman caller as a way out and a means to an end, then ditching him when Guy’s dreams of Paris become reality. She even uses Doctor Sam to rid herself of an unwanted child, her callous and throwaway comments ending in a terrible denouement.

It’s hard to feel sympathy for Angel, and yet she has had a hard and terrible life — why shouldn’t she want something better? Her ruthlessness manifests itself again in the end as she beckons out of the window to a passing gentleman, almost returning to where she started — to save and run again to new dreams. The worry and despair of what might happen to her next is left hanging, and yet she is a woman, seizing her moment, making the most of every opportunity, hard grafting and dreaming dreams.

The sweetness of Delia and Sam’s romance is horribly broken. It’s really only Guy who get his dream (and kindly takes Delia, not Angel, with him). Delia’s grief on seeing Angel return to the scene of the crime is heart rending.

The only character who didn’t really ring true is the gentleman caller — he switches too easily from grief to killer, and for all his talk of faith and church, we never really see his Christian values — the love, compassion, care for others. He is perhaps experiencing huge culture clash — even church doesn’t seem like church here. He stands out, feels uncomfortable. In his grief he seeks to replace the image of his wife and to try to over control the new woman he’s with (and as Guy warns Angel) not really seeing who Angel truly is (such as not appreciating her gussying up of his gift of a sensible though smart dress). He wants her to be his wife brought to life again and she isn’t and can’t be. Osy Ikhile works hard to bring this character to life — the pathos when he learns that Angel is pregnant and creates a rocking chair for her; only to be brutally rejected and informed that she’s killed their child to go to Paris, that the marriage is off. Previously Angel had pushed him into marriage to make an honest woman of her and this deeply grieving man thought he’d get his family back again. We do see something of his deep grief, his humanity (and if he finds the whole area so revolting, you have to wonder why he stays, apart from love of Angel). It wa unfortunate that the drama headed towards the melodramatic here and turned the caller into the typical crazed Christian Cornbelt killer that appears so often as a trope. Yet the awfulness of what he does is palpable.

It is hard to like Angel at this point as her throwaway comment condemns and her actions are utterly selfish. However, you could also see her as shifting the blame to escape a controlling man. When the gentleman caller behaves in a thoroughly ungentlemanly and cold fashion to Doctor Sam, in ruthless revenge — it is shocking. The audience gasped as one. And yet Angel feels trapped, squashed by life — always wanting something better, and why shouldn’t she? She is just trying to do the best she can to survive. She has a voice and style — why shouldn’t she use it? Even after the play ends it’s easy to worry about these characters.

The charm and power of this play came from the vibrancy and dynamism of the characters playing off against each other. Such as Doctor Sam, who doctors by day and parties by night and won’t retire. Delia who longs to make life better for Harlem women with birth control (and the Church on her side) — her distraction and fascination with the gentleman caller was something to behold! Another great feature of this play was audience involvement — the reactions and collective shock were electric and added to the atmosphere. Such a gripping, engaging play that was equally a shock in the way it ended.

And yet, despite the melodrama, Guy gets his dream, his summons from Josephine Baker to design gowns for her and is able to pay his bills and achieve his dreams. Angel though is left behind — to what end?

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Susan Tailby

By Susan Tailby. Appreciator of arts and culture; things I've seen and enjoyed and you might too! Reviews all my own opinion....