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It’s February—or, as it’s known in the theater business, August Wilson Month. That’s a sly reference to the fact that February also happens to be Black History Month, the time of year when theater companies with white artistic directors are notorious for going out of their way to revive shows by black playwrights, after which they usually consider their duty done until next season.
More often than not, this means either one of Mr. Wilson’s plays or Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” but a growing number of ambitious companies are starting to dig deeper and come up with lesser-known works deserving of much wider attention. The latest of these is Keen Company, one of my favorite off-Broadway troupes, whose new offering, Pearl Cleage’s “Blues for an Alabama Sky,” received its premiere in Atlanta in 1995 and has since been staged throughout the U.S. but is only just receiving its first major New York production. About time, too: Ms. Cleage’s tale of a pair of misfits from Georgia who come to Depression-era Harlem in the hope of leading more abundant lives is quietly poignant and beautifully wrought, and Keen Company’s staging, cast to absolute perfection and directed with supreme delicacy by LA Williams, is pleasing in every imaginable way.
At the center of the action are Angel (Alfie Fuller), a would-be nightclub singer, and her roommate Guy (John-Andrew Morrison), an openly gay costume designer. They share a tiny New York apartment but want to move to Paris to pursue their careers in a country where they can live more freely. Angel, however, is more hard-boiled than Guy, and would be content—or so she supposes—to marry for money. “I’m tired of Negro dreams,” she says bitterly. “All they ever do is break your heart.” Enter Leland (Khiry Walker), an unsophisticated, fresh-off-the-bus widower from Tuskegee who falls in love with Angel at first sight….
“Blues for an Alabama Sky” isn’t without flaw—Ms. Cleage gets a bit preachy once or twice—but for the most part she steers well clear of the obvious. I was struck by the impressive assurance with which she sketches the lives of Angel, Guy and their friends, who also include Delia (Jasminn Johnson), a idealistic young neighbor who is setting up Harlem’s first family-planning clinic, and Sam (Sheldon Woodley), a middle-aged doctor who unexpectedly falls for Delia. I was struck, too, by the unselfconscious sweetness and warmth with which Ms. Cleage portrays her five characters…
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An excerpt from the Court Theatre’s 2017 Chicago revival of Blues for an Alabama Sky, directed by Ron OJ Parson: