‘Blues for an Alabama Sky’ review – Samira Wiley shines in UK stage debut
The National Theatre’s revival of Pearl Cleage’s 1995 play, directed by Lynette Linton, is as current as ever.
Sometimes, it feels like 1930 could have been yesterday. The country is in the wake of a market crash and in the depths of another (great) recession. Divisions run rampant between classes and countries, religions and races. And, like the characters in Pearl Cleage’s heart-stirring play Blues for an Alabama Sky sing, everyone tries to “hold fast to dreams.”
That lyric comes from “Dreams” by Langston Hughes, one of the preeminent figures of the Harlem Renaissance, a time in the 1920s and ‘30s in New York City where Black art and culture thrived. Cleage’s play is set at the epicenter of this movement, and her lively characters Guy (a fashion designer) and Angel (a cabaret singer) have big hopes of moving to Paris to design costumes for Josephine Baker and headlining a club act.
Their next door neighbor Delia is trying to achieve her dream of setting up a women's health clinic, with the help of their friend and doctor Sam. However, when Angel meets and falls for a mysterious man from Alabama, who helps her home after a particularly rough night, she forces herself and her friends to compromise their future.
The National Theatre’s revival of Cleage’s 1995 play is as resonant and current as ever. Deftly directed by Lynette Linton, the production has a cinematic quality, captured by Oliver Fenwick’s immersive lighting and Frankie Bradshaw’s colourful costumes and majestic rotating set. Benjamin Kwasi Burrell’s haunting compositions carry verses from Hughes’s poetry in haunting interludes between scenes, as the characters slowly confront reality.
Samira Wiley shines as the jubilant and effervescent Angel, fizzing around the stage full of energy and charisma with every look and gesture. She displays impressive craft as a stage actor, and her chemistry with Giles Terera, as Guy, makes you believe the two have been friends forever.
Terera steals every scene he’s in, creating an incredibly entertaining and compassionate portrait of the confident and creative Guy, a gay man grappling with pride and identity when acceptance was not the norm. Terara finds the perfect balance between Guy’s need for approval and unabashed self-love, and the result is captivating.
The rest of the company completes a satisfying portrait, with Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo’s sympathetic Delia, Sule Rimi’s intellectual charmer Sam, and Osy Ikhile’s Southern gentleman Leland Cunningham.
What results from this tight-knit cast of characters in flats across the hall appears to be the hallmark of a living room play, but Cleage flips the theatrical convention on its head. There is no safety within or outside of this building for these characters, and their bond comes from something much deeper, beyond their shared homes and circumstances.
But when that bond is prematurely shattered, they’re left to pick up the pieces of their world. After all, dreams come at a price, and if you don’t let your dreams die, something (or someone) else is bound to.
Samira Wiley, Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo, Sule Rimi, and Giles Terera in 'Blues for an Alabama Sky' at the National Theatre. (Photo by Marc Brenner)
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