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Blues For an Alabama Sky
Cranwell Resort

Nobody's working and nobody's got prospects ---Angel
For prospects, you gotta look past 125th Street. No law says we gotta live and die in Harlem, USA, just 'cause we happened to wind up here when we finally blew out of Savannah. The world is a big place! --Guy
Getting smaller every day. ---Angel
No it isn't. I can look out this very window and see us walking arm in arm down the Champs Élysées.--Guy

The Porches Inn
Rachel Leslie and Darryl Theirse
Rachel Leslie and Darryl Theirse
(Photo: Kevin Sprague)
This has been quite a season for African-American playwrights and actors. Lynn Nottage 's beautifully acted and staged turn of the century drama about a Brooklyn seamstress, Intimate Apparel, was produced by the Roundabout Theater Company. Her Fabulation which jumped forward to a more recent decade opened to considerable acclaim at Playwright Horizon's smaller venue. A revival of the late Lorraine Hansberry's 1956 A Raisin in the Sun earned Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald, and thanks to the savvy casting of Sean Coombs, also quickly earned back its investment -- rare for straight dramas these days, and even rarer for plays about African-Americans.

The continued vitality of Raisin and the response to Ms. Nottage's plays make Blues For an Alabama Sky by Pearl Cleage, another talented African-American playwright, a pertinent opening production for Berkshire Theatre Festival's Summer 2004 Main Stage season. Like Hansberry and Nottage, Cleage has framed her story as a piece in the historic tapestry of the African-American experience. Interestingly, when Blues premiered in 1995, Phylicia Rashad , who is now playing Lena Younger in Raisin in the Sun , was Angel Allen, the beautiful black woman who left Savannah for Harlem, only to find the excitement of what has become known as the Harlem Renaissance diminished by the onset of the Great Depression.

The Angel on stage at BTF is Rachel Leslie. She and the rest of the 5-member cast are reprising the roles of Blues for an Alabama Sky's most recent and much praised production at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. They are once again led by the Actors Theatre's associate artistic director Timothy Douglas who has also replicated the impressive set, costume and lighting design of the original crafts team.

Angel and her little circle of friends are fictional characters, but inhabiting the stage with them are some of the real people associated with the period -- e.g. Margaret Sanger, who enlisted the activist Reverend Adam Clayton Powell in her effort to set up a birth control center in Harlem; and Langston Hughes, whose image boosting poetry made impossible dreams seem more possible ("I too sing America/I am the darker brother./ They send me to eat in the kitchen/ comes/ But I laugh/ And eat well/ And grow strong"). Sanger is present through Angel's young neighbor Delia Patterson (Cherise Booth) a prim and proper social worker whose passion for family planning also awakens her to another kind of passion through her burgeoning friendship with Doctor Sam Thomas (David Alan Anderson), a likeable realist who helps women to have or not have babies and whose motto for living is "let the good times roll on."

Josephine Baker, the most famous of the real but off-stage characters figuring large in this tragi-comedy has left Harlem for the greener pastures of Paris, yet she too hovers over the lives of the people we see moving back and forth between the colorful cluttered apartment shared by Angel and her costume designer friend Guy (Darryl Theirse) and the neater book lined one right across the hall occupied by Delia.

Guy and Angel, but especially Guy' are more flamboyant cousins to Intimate Apparel's introverted seamstress Esther Mills. Guy, like Esther, has a real talent for designing and sewing and is hard working enough to make his dream of becoming Josephine Baker's designer in Paris credibility. As Esther creates lingerie for uptown society matrons as well as downtown ladies of the night so Guy makes a living designing costumes for "floozies" at cheap night clubs while he sends sketches and actual costumes to Baker in Paris. Angel is like Esther unwise in her choice of men (many men!). It is after her latest affair with a gangster as well as her singing job end that she's ready to contemplate life with Leland Cunningham (Shane Taylor), a religious, narrow-minded young carpenter from Alabama who is attracted to her because she reminds him of the wife whose death brought him to New York and away from reminders of happier times.

Playwright Cleage strongest assets are well meshed characterizations and often funny dialogue. She has succeeded in creating five characters who are interesting individually and in their interactions with each other. Their conversations make their connection to legendary names and events fun and plausible. The actors have bonded into a solid ensemble though top honors go to David Alan Anderson and Darryl Theirse. Anderson's Dr. Sam is a jovial, bon vivant with a sensitivity that is touchingly evident in his sensitive courtship of Delia. Theirse makes the most, but never too much of Guy's eccentricities. His showy exterior and amusing remarks don't keep us from seeing his caring devotion to Angel. It is Guy's overarching decency that gives credibility to the semi-happy ending that almost redeems the playwright's misstep of resorting to a too predictable melodramatic turning point.

No doubt if this play had been written before the economics of putting on a show precluded large casts, we would have had at least a few "extras" in the street fronting the two apartments and hallway between them. While Tony Cisek's set with its tall walls of windows, gorgeously lit by Tony Penna, is quite dramatic, there are times when the stage feels somewhat under populated. I think this might have been avoided with fewer windows but with a glimpse of fire escapes and laundry. The author's own stage directions suggest "a window from facing the street from the larger apartment so that characters can talk out the window to people in the street area." These are minor complaints, and even the major flaw of the smoking gun climax, should not keep you from getting to know these memorable characters and the engaging actors who portray them. Berkshire residents have an added incentives to do so by taking advantage of BTF's Tuesday and Wednesday 2-for-1 ticket offer.

Raisin in the Sun
Intimate Apparel

Written by Pearl Cleage
Directed by Timothy Douglas
Cast: David Alan Anderson as Sam Thomas, Cherise Booth as Delia Patterson, Rachel Leslie as Angel Allen, Shane Taylor as Leland Cunningham and Darryl Theirse as Guy Jacobs.
Scenic Design: Tony Cisek
Costume Design: Lorraine Venberg
Lighting Design: Tony Penna
Running Time: 2 1/2 hours, including one 15-minute intermission
Berkshire Theatre Festival with the Actor's Theatre of Louisville
BTF, Main Stage, Route 7, Stockbridge, 413-298-5576
June 22, 2004 to July 10th; opening June Monday through Saturday at 8 pm, Thursday and Saturday matinees at 3 pm.
Tickets range in price from $35 to $62. (Year Round Berkshire Residents with ID can purchase Two-For-One tickets on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings; Students with ID are half price. Rush tickets at half price available 30 minutes prior to performance).
Review by Elyse Sommer based on June 24th performance
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