By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Pearl Cleage's two-act drama weaves together overlapping story lines about a group of friends in Harlem in the 1930s. Guy Jacobs (Chanina Mwikuta), a gay costume designer, shares his tiny apartment with the blowsy Angel Allen (Evette Perry-Buchanan), a nightclub showgirl with a rep for dating mobsters. Across the hall, the friendly but upright Delia Patterson (Regina Washington) works on plans for the first women's clinic in Harlem. She's courted by the noble Dr. Sam Thomas (William Earl Ray), a handsome physician with do-gooder syndrome. The fifth character, Leland Cunningham (Vincent McGill), is a soft-spoken Alabama carpenter just arrived in Harlem. A chance meeting with Angel convinces him she's the near-reincarnation of his deceased wife. And as it happens, Angel needs some looking after. But is she willing to give up the high life to settle down with the homophobic homeboy?
The play isn't a masterpiece. It's heavy on talk of issues--abortion, gay rights, Prohibition, race politics--and it's full of those illogically convenient entrances and exits that have one character leaving at the exact moment another's arriving. But the fine acting of this good-looking ensemble elevates the thing beyond a sort of "Black Will and Grace Go to Harlem" scenario.
These are characters we don't often see portrayed in plays with African-American themes. Dropping the names Josephine Baker (the great Folies Bergere star) and Langston Hughes (the poet) into their conversations establishes Guy and Angel as members of an elite and decadent demimonde, drinking champagne all day and living way beyond their means (Angel's a lot like Sally Bowles, come to think of it). Guy has a delightful bitchy streak. When one of the ladies dons a dowdy cotton frock, Guy cracks, "That dress has a life of its own, but it's not nightlife, baby."
All of the performances are terrific, but Mwikuta really gives this production a bump with his underplayed turn as Guy. Ray imbues the character of the valiant doctor with a heavy jolt of sex appeal in his gentle seduction of the virginal Delia. McGill effectively peels away the layers of country-boy Leland to reveal a streak of violence that will mean tragedy for one of the couples.
Directed by Sharon Benge, Blues for an Alabama Sky shows that Jubilee Theatre is still thriving after the death last May of its co-founder and artistic director, Rudy Eastman. The production has a nice energy to it and in its darker scenes reminds me of August Wilson's much heavier King Hedley II.
Next up for this company, opening March 24, is an original musical, Diaries of a Barefoot Diva: And Other Tales and Stories From the Ghetto, written by one of Jubilee's favorite actor-singers, Sheran Goodspeed Keyton, with music and lyrics by Joe Rogers. I won't wait till just before it closes to catch that one.