74-year-old author Pearl Cleage is about to have a moment in Chicago. Next week, Goodman Theater Opening the first Chicago production of Cleage’s 2010 game, “The Nacirema Society”, an article about black debutantes in Montgomery, Alabama, Martin Luther King Jr. He leaves as he prepares to walk towards Selma. Various workshops and panels are planned at venues around the city this fall.
But it was the Remy Bumppo Theater that started this era. Kleage Festival Along with the revival of Cleage’s “Blues for the Alabama Sky,” it sets a high standard for everything that follows.
Thanks in large part to the talented director Mikael Burke.
To date, Burke has mostly worked with more symbolic and experimental pieces (mostly at About Face Theatre), whereas Cleage’s 1995 work is a realistic, masterfully crafted, well-made play. But as is often the case, in my opinion, a director less committed to the genre turns out to be a perfect fit, injecting the action with exactly the honesty, irreverence and uneasy vitality that the play needs.
“Blues” may sound familiar to some regular theatergoers; I first saw the play in the 1990s and We last reviewed it at the Court Theatre. In 2017, in a successful and fully live production directed by Ron OJ Parson.
Burke’s show, however, is staged in a more intimate studio at Theater Wit (down the hall from the Globe Theatre’s production of another fall show, Shattered). “A View from the Bridge”), and the most impressive aspect of Burke’s work in the present is how believable everything and everyone here looks and feels, despite the fact that they were living in Harlem in 1930 and were also just feet away from the theater’s front row.
At its core, the play follows characters trying to hold their idealism and relationships together even as conflict and potential disaster lurk around every corner. This work depicts the clash of dreams and painful realities, Black hopes and racist restrictions, but also dives deep into the fusion of different Black cultures, both liberal and conservative, in Harlem of that period.
Specifically, we meet Guy (Breon Arzell), a self-described “notorious homosexual” who designs costumes for cabaret performers and dreams of working with Josephine Baker in Paris. Guy’s roommate, Angel (Tiffany Renee Johnson), is a showgirl who strives for safety and finds that many voters are not what they seem. Across the hall lives Delia (Jazzlyn Luckett Aderele), who works with Margaret Sanger on the controversial issue of birth control in Harlem and is in love with good-hearted local doctor Sam (Edgar Sanchez). Into this sophisticated Uptown setting enters Leland (Ajax Dontavius), a heavy transplant from Alabama; At first, we see Leland (Ajax Dontavius) carrying a gun to protect himself not only from the streets but also from cultural change.
All of these actors are excellent: Arzell, who I’ve been watching for years, is particularly on fire here; she drives the fast-paced production with the force of her personality, but also opens up a vulnerability. He is a terrific example of acting, even though everyone around him is very in tune with the play’s theme of how life teeters on the brink of triumph and tragedy. You’re never pulled out of the tense action (despite the running time), and the show is staged and performed as if anything is about to happen. Reactions at Sunday’s demonstration were extremely enthusiastic.
If you’ve never seen the play, there’s no need to spoil the plot. But know that this is one of the best works of the decade; It came in the middle of the most productive period of Cleage’s dramatic writing, before he began to devote more attention to novel writing. “Blues for the Alabama Sky” is a rich piece of writing that holds up wonderfully today, especially when performed with such heartfelt honesty.
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Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “Blues for the Alabama Sky” (3.5 stars)
When: until October 15
Where: Remy Bumppo Theater Company at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
Working time: 2 hours 40 minutes
Tickets: $36-$52 at 773-975-8150 and www.remybumppo.org