“Everybody in Harlem is singing the blues” but perhaps no one like Angel Allen (Nija Okoro), a hard-drinking chanteuse who has been dumped and fired by her gangster boyfriend-boss, and her “notorious homosexual” bff, Guy (Greg Alverez Reid), an indisputably talented, but also out-of-work costume designer who dreams of selling his creations to and joining Josephine Baker in Paris. Finely balancing this flamboyant, ambitious pair, are also the more practical, selfless next next door neighbor, Delia (Kim Steele) who aspires to open a family planning clinic, and Sam (Joe Holt), a prominent physician who is ever-ready to “let the good times roll” and touchingly enamored with her. Things aren’t rosy, but at least there’s hope, and the liberal quartet share a heartwarming camaraderie, creating an island of solace and mutual support in a sea of mounting challenges; that is until the arrival of Leland Cunningham (Dennis Pearson), who courts Angel because she reminds him of his late wife, and whose narrow-minded, ultra-religious views unleash turmoil and tragedy.
Playwright, Pearl Cleage’s writing is sharp, witty, superbly well-paced. It’s no small achievement that despite the play being set in 1930’s Depression-era Harlem, the messages about homophobia, struggling artists, and crushing economic barriers faced by African Americans feel surprisingly (and woefully) current. Solid performances from this impressively adept ensemble make it altogether impossible to laud any one actor. Period costumes by Wendell C. Carmichael, and intimate set design by John Iacovelli infuse the production with tremendous authenticity.
There is romance, music, ambition, politics — all weaved into a engrossing and poignant tale leading to a truly satisfying and credible conclusion. The actors flourish in the more than capable directorial hands of Tony Award-winner, Phylicia Rashad who originated the role of Angel in the world premiere of the play some 25 years ago — and, as recently as 2017, gave us one of the most riveting and unforgettable performances in “Head of Passes.”
–– G. Dhalla
Blues for an Alabama Sky at the Mark Taper Forum through May 8th. Tickets HERE.