Harlem Renaissance Play Blues for an Alabama Sky Rings Soulfully True for Today
By A. Scott Galloway
It’s often stated that there are no accidents in God’s universe, a fact that is brilliantly mirrored in the story of how Pearl Cleage’s haunting Harlem Renaissance piece Blues for an Alabama Sky arrived this month at The Pasadena Playhouse with Robin Givens and Kadeem Hardison.
“We did another of Pearl’s plays, Flyin’ West, about 12 years ago – early on in my tenure here,” the serenely poised Epps shares. “I’ve always been a fan of her writing as a playwright and as a novelist. Blues for an Alabama Sky was in the back of my head as a possibility for the theatre. It’s very much informed by the Harlem Renaissance and all of the great artists, writers, and musicians from the period, but I was most motivated by rediscovering how contemporary the play is with issues and political concerns that mirror what’s going on now — very much of its time but also very contemporary.” Those issues include financial instability following a period rich with artistic freedoms and individual decadences, moral and highly emotional personal battles over abortion and homosexuality, and how the worst of times bring out both the best and worst in people.
Next came the casting of the five main characters. “I was familiar with each of the actors and the qualities each possessed that suggested they would be good for this play. Robert Ray Manning Jr. plays right-reared carpenter ‘Leland Cunningham’ (who comes up from Alabama and falls in love at first sight with a woman that resembles his first sadly deceased wife). Tessa Thompson plays pro-rights activist ‘Delia.’ And Kevin T. Carroll plays proudly and ‘out-ly’ gay fashion costumer ‘Guy Jacobs,’ the piece’s most doggedly optimistic dreamer.”
The star focal point of the play around which everyone else flutters is down on her luck blues singer “Angel,” a woman accustomed to getting anything she wants from anybody – male or female. Epps turned to the lovely Robin Givens for this role. Easing back into the actor’s life after several years away to raise her two sons, Givens is most memorable from TV’s Head of the Class, film’s A Rage in Harlem, and a stint as “Roxie Hart” in a Broadway production of the musical Chicago.
“Along with her great beauty, charm, humor, and passionate sensuality, Robin possesses a vivacious quality to her personality that was perfect for ‘Angel,’” Epps asserts. “The role requires a broad range of emotions that Robin skillfully draws upon. Her character takes a real emotional rollercoaster over the two hours of the play.”
Garnished with wonderful era-specific music by the likes of Ella, Billie, and Duke, Blues for an Alabama Sky is a shining example of the culturally rich programming that Sheldon Epps has been bringing to The Pasadena Playhouse.
The Pasadena Playhouse is located at 39 S. El Molino Ave. Blues for Alabama Sky runs Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. For tickets, visit www.pasadenaplayhouse.org or call (626) 356-7529.