Are dreams supposed to be ambitions we strive to realise? Or simply ideals meant to be unattainable, existing to help us get through our mundane everyday lives?
A play for those who prefer a stand-up buffet to a sit-down meal
This seems to be the question at the centre of Pearl Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky. Though its reliance on archetypes and predictable story arc means this is a play more likely to entertain than enlighten.
It’s billed as a ‘startling revival’ of an ‘extraordinary play’, but this National Theatre production at the Lyttleton may be its first professional UK staging. There was another revival in America earlier this year that received rather mixed reviews. As with the original 1995 production, the revival was off-Broadway. It seems the aforementioned ‘extraordinariness’ hasn’t been that far-reaching.
In an impressive-looking tenement building designed by Frankie Bradshaw, the story follows four friends in 1930s’ Harlem; when the depression era reality had taken the shine off the city’s promise. This is the sort of friendship you only see on stage, rarely in real life. Built from the need to give a play its narrative, rather than from any reality.
Each character has their own dream. Each has a dramatic moment that will affect their life. Each deals with their dream differently. Though the story arcs occasionally overlap, they could all exist as their own fully-formed plays.
Instead we have an array of tempting titbits. A play for those who prefer a stand-up buffet to a sit-down meal.
Fag & Hag
The central characters – possibly, as they share the bigger room on the tenement’s ground floor – are club singer Angel (The Handmaid’s Tale’s Samira Wiley making her professional UK theatre debut) and dressmaker Guy (Hamilton’s Giles Terera).
Angel is one of life’s victims, trapped in a revolving search for a better life. She dreams of independence but seems unaware of her reliance on men. From her earlier life as a prostitute “just to get money to leave”, to her current role as gangster mistress “to further her singing career”. Even her accommodation is at the purse of ‘Big Daddy’ Guy.
Guy is theatrically camp. He embraces his difference, in a world where different means wrong. There are decadent all-male parties and dangerous all-male streets, but they are given only passing reference. Inside the tenement, his attention is on the portrait of Josephine Baker for whom he makes and sends dresses to Paris. The others mock him as he waits for the telegram that will hold his literal ticket out of there to join her.
Terera has a lot of fun with the part. He gives a masterclass in eyebrow-arching, lip-pursing and pinky-waving. It’s like John Inman never died. It is the sort of uber-defiant gay character common in so-called AIDS plays of the 80s and 90s. A gay man written by straight woman. A cliché-filled fag with Angel as the requisite hag.
Contradictions & Availability
Across the hall is young, naïve Delia (Ronke Adekoluejo). A jumble of contradictions, Delia is not a fan of partying, yet looks to Angel as a sister. She is proudly virginal, though she moons at men like a puppy. She is introverted and shy, but appears to be the only person fighting to open a birth control centre.
In a city where God-fearing folk believe the sole purpose of love-making is to bear children, Delia faces opposition that leads to violence. But, like with the homophobic incidents, this part of her story happens off-stage and is referenced only briefly. She seems to get over it very quickly and with little concern.
Bridging the gap between the two flats is doctor Sam (Sule Rimi). Sam is either working hard, doing double-shifts at the hospital, or partying hard, drinking moonshine and dancing at the juke joints. He helps deliver endless Harlem babies, then celebrates with much alcohol. He helps terminate unwanted Harlem babies, then commiserates with much alcohol.
Delia and Sam fall in love. This is likely due to their availability to do so.
Interrupting this group of “friends without substance” is the arrival of Alabama-born Leland (Osy Ikhile). We initially see him helping Guy get a drunken Angel home, before he returns to court her affections.
Leland’s role is that of catalyst. He is anti-homosexual, anti-birth control and anti-women’s rights. He doesn’t drink or dance. Angel reminds him of his dead wife. He gives her a pinafore dress and his mother’s wedding ring. They have sex. He proposes. Ya-da, ya-da, ya-da.
Oh and he carries a gun.
You don’t need to be an expert in Ibsen to guess how this will turn out. And it does, with predictable melodrama.
Blues… would be a far richer pay if it just focused on one of the characters’ stories. As it is, it teases us too much with references to off-stage events. We aren’t party to depth so end up merely doing a hop, skip and dance over the characters as they decide whether or not they should realise their dreams. We don’t really care either way.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t enjoyable. The actors add flesh to the characters’ flimsy bones. You will like them, even if you don’t believe them. It’s like a sitcom that you regularly watch even though it never makes you laugh out loud.
Its lack of empathy leads to audience interaction rather than investment. As the play progresses, dramatic moments receive whoops and cries. The gun reveal gets an ‘oh no’. Narrow-minded views are treated as comedy; lines such as “I’m your man” get raucous laughs.
It's odd to be surrounded by this sort of reaction to this sort of play. It’s cat-calling only made possible when an audience is fully aware they are watching actors perform on a stage. Generally people don’t whoop and holler if they feel transported to the play’s time and place.
Whoops, there goes Alabama!
I suspect Cleage may be surprised to hear this sort of interaction. She might think the message she is telling is more worthy. But it shows people are enjoying this playing. And that it is a fun night out.
There could even be merit in doing a rehaul of the current marketing material. Replace the serious, evocative, black-and-white headshot with a photo of the cast drinking champagne and attempting the Charleston. In fact, why not go further. Call it “Whoops, there goes Alabama!” and watch ticket sales soar.