Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

July 23, 2023

REVIEW: Barrington Stage Company, "Blues for an Alabama Sky"

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA.
through August 5, 2023
by Jarice Hanson

It’s 1930 and the Harlem Renaissance is giving way to the Great Depression. Singer Angel Allen (Tsilala Brock) has just been fired by her boss, a mob figure with whom she’s been having an affair.   She lives with Guy (Brandon Alvion) a gay costumer who dreams of outfitting Josephine Baker for her Paris cabaret act and talks of going to parties with Langston Hughes. Their neighbor, the sweet social worker Delia (Jasminn Johnson) is trying to convince her pastor, the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, to support the establishment of a Harlem clinic where birth control can be dispensed along with other measures to improve the lives of the residents. She is aided by Dr. Sam Thompson (Ryan George) a doctor in the neighborhood, who has all of the right intentions—including the intention to fall in love with Delia. Into this family of friends comes Leland Cuningham (Deleon Dallas), a visitor to Harlem from Alabama, where his culture clashes with the emerging world of Harlem in its golden years.

Photo by Daniel Rader
In Pearl Cleage’s 1995 “slice of life” story, the audience sees how friendship, culture, and time in history play together to paint a picture of Harlem, where “for one brief moment” everything seemed possible. The tension, however, is that we know what’s ahead for these characters, Black culture, social mobility, and social values that hover over the decades to follow. Cleage creates dramatic tension to show how much, and even more, how little has changed in America in close to 100 years. The themes in this play are surprisingly contemporary, and more than just a little bittersweet.

This play had a critically acclaimed revival in New York in 2020, followed by an equally popular revival in London in 2022, and it seems to have been produced widely throughout the U.S. In Barrington Stage's production, Director Candis C. Jones uses staging techniques that would have been appropriate in 1930 theatre with actors speaking their lines out to the audience, a device that uses acoustic space efficiently, but adds a sense of artificiality to the flow. In today’s contemporary theatre, this device seems outdated, and it leaves the audience wondering whether the intimacy of the text would work better in a smaller theatre, or whether we’ve become so accustomed to microphones that the audience expects stronger vocal volume.

As always, Barrington production values are impeccable. Scenic Designer Sydney Lynne has created a beautiful, ornate set with visual references to the 1930's. Adam Honore’s lighting design is seamless, and Danielle Preston’s costumes are stunning. Fabian Obispo’s sound design is interesting, though pre-show music seemed far more contemporary than expected in a period piece. 

Like early 20th-century theatre, Act I takes its time to set up the characters and introduce the culture and establish relationships, but it leaves the audience wondering where the action will go. Then, Act explodes with a number of highly emotional, beautifully acted elements and stage pictures that leave no doubt as to the fate of these friends and Black culture.

The message of this play is sad and poignant, and perhaps, an accurate account of history that we hope will never be erased or whitewashed