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'Alabama': Period Piece With a Point

By Lloyd Rose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 13, 1996; Page F01

Like her "Flyin' West," which played a while back at the Kennedy Center, Pearl Cleage's "Blues for an Alabama Sky," now at Arena Stage, is unapologetically melodramatic. Also like that earlier play, it has a boisterous, hard-to-resist energy. You could say Cleage hits all the cliches in her story, but you could also say that she smacks them so hard their faces shine and they look fresh.

In the Harlem of the '30s, Angel (Phylicia Rashad) is a down-on-her-luck blues singer living with an old friend, a stylish homosexual costume designer named Guy (the irrepressible Mark Young). Into her life comes Leland (Hassan El-Amin), a naive straight arrow from down South who looks as if he might actually turn out to be the mythical knight in shining armor. Things are, of course, more complicated than that.

Guy's across-the-hall neighbor is shy, responsible Delia (Deidrie N. Henry), who is attempting to establish a family planning clinic in Harlem and meeting with plenty of opposition. Sam (Wendell Wright), the doctor who ends up helping her, explains why in one word: "genocide." As he puts it, a lot of Harlemites see birth control as "white women teaching colored women how to stop making babies."

Cleage has a real talent for storytelling, and director Kenny Leon and his cast have given her play a robust, high-powered staging. Rashad's Angel is worn down by life but still a fighter, and still a full-blooded woman. Draped in a form-fitting maroon dress beaded in black, Rashad is one of the sexiest presences ever to grace the Kreeger Theater stage. She's more sensual putting on a dress than most women are taking one off.

Wright is quite good as Sam, the disillusioned doctor who hopes for a second chance in life (the character is almost Chekhovian), and Henry and El-Amin turn in strong performances. But the play is stolen, wrapped up in a box with a ribbon and carried off by Young. Guy may be a familiar figure -- the heroine's gay best friend, the wise and witty homosexual -- but he's juicily written, and Young makes a real character out of him in spite of the handicap, common to gay roles, of having all the funniest lines.

Cleage is a funny writer, and the actors find all the laughs. Indeed, when matters turn ugly in the second act it's a little as if another play had been substituted. Angel, in particular, seems to have had a personality transplant during the intermission, changing from a vital, down-but-not-out woman to a nasty, appallingly shallow human being. Rashad negotiates the abrupt change with nary a bump, but she can't eclipse the confusion in the writing.

"Blues for an Alabama Sky" is set during the Harlem Renaissance, but except that Josephine Baker plays an offstage role and the name "Langston" is thrown around, you wouldn't know it. This failure to take advantage of the history of the period is the most disappointing thing about the play. Costume and set designers Susan E. Mickey and Marjorie Bradley Kellogg, however, have provided lush details of clothing and furnishings that firmly root the production in the '30s.

It takes a while to realize that beneath the comedy and melodrama, Cleage is dealing with a social issue. Bit by bit we notice a theme running through the characters' lives. Leland is a widower because his "frail" wife believed in her duty "to be fruitful and multiply" and died, along with her baby, in childbirth. Sam willingly enough performed an abortion on the loose-living Angel when the father was her Italian gangster lover, but when she becomes pregnant by a black man, his attitude is different. Delia, who only wants to give black women autonomy over their bodies, has to question whether she might in fact be "hurting the race."

At one point the audience may wonder why, with an expert on family planning around, people who could take advantage of her knowledge don't -- it would have saved everyone a lot of trouble. But of course then there would have been no play. Still it's to Cleage's credit that she refuses to resolve the troublesome issues of birth control, abortion, sexual freedom, duty to the self and duty to the community. The play is clumsy at times, but it's never glib.

Blues for an Alabama Sky, by Pearl Cleage.
Directed by Kenny Leon. Lights, Ann G. Wrightson; sound, David Budries; music, Dwight D. Andrews.
At Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater through Nov. 3. Call 202-488-3300.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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