There’s a lovely moment in African Continuum Theatre Company’s even-keeled production of “Blues for an Alabama Sky” when Angel, a nightclub singer in 1930 Harlem, has just finished flirting with Leland, an Alabama native visiting New York. The two have been talking through the window of her apartment, whose walls, from the audience’s point of view, are invisible.
When the conversation ends, Leland walks off down the street, while Angel stays inside, pacing. For just a fraction of a second, the actors playing the two characters pause, creating a tableau in which Angel and Leland seem to be both separated — by the apartment wall — and tantalizingly close. The tableau dissolves as the actors resume their movement, but not before this frozen instant has spoken volumes about how barriers of all sorts can separate people who are falling for each other.
Such artful touches, devised by director Walter Dallas, add resonance to this lively, heartfelt version of Pearl Cleage’s 1995 play, a portrait of clashing worldviews and value systems that parallel the Harlem Renaissance’s encounter with the Great Depression. A whisper of staginess does infect the acting here and there, but in general the production is a genial showcase for the play’s potboiler narrative, piquant dialogue and — history teachers take note! — reams of period detail.
Set designer Timothy Jones picks up cannily on the period-detail part with his atmospheric set, representing two neighboring Persian-carpeted apartments in a Harlem brownstone. Behind a sofa in the larger apartment, bolts of cloth cluster around a sewing machine: This is the home of Guy (Joshua D. Robinson), an exuberant homosexual costume designer who is working on some outfits for Josephine (Baker) when he’s not hanging out with Langston (Hughes).
When Angel (Maryam Fatima Foye) is fired from her gig at the Cotton Club, she moves in with Guy, an old friend. But money troubles loom, and the situation grows yet more complicated when Leland (Gary-Kayi Fletcher) enters the picture. Meanwhile, in the apartment across the hall, another friend, an idealistic social worker named Delia (an aptly demure Sasha Lightbourne), a colleague of family planning pioneer Margaret Sanger, is working to establish a birth control clinic in Harlem.
Swanning around in a multicolored smoking jacket and comparable garb (costume design is by LeVonne D. Lindsey), Robinson’s Guy is enjoyably animated, and he works up some droll expressions of polite horror when looking at his female pals’ mousier dresses. Fletcher invests Leland with charisma and a touch of mystery, and there’s powerful chemistry between him and Foye’s Angel, a figure who seems overly mannered at the start of the play but grows more convincingly sultry as time goes on. Keith E. Irby delivers an affable performance as Sam Thomas, a busy doctor who knows where to get his hands on bootleg booze.
It is the two female characters who most keenly experience the dichotomies Cleage has set at the heart of her tale: the contrast between traditional and evolving mores and between idealism and bleak economic reality. As Angel says, “I’m tired of Negro dreams; all they do is break your heart.”
by Pearl Cleage. Directed by Walter Dallas; assistant director, Angelisa Gillyard; light design, Arnika L. Downey; sound design, David L. Wilson. About two and a half hours. Through May 8 at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Call 202-399-7993 ext. 2 or visit www.africancontinuumtheatre.com .