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‘Blues for an Alabama Sky’ review

  • Theatre, Drama
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Blues for an Alabama Sky, National Theatre, 2022
Photo by Marc BrennerSamira Wiley (Angel), Ronkę Adékoluejo (Delia), Sule Rimi (Sam) and Giles Terera (Guy)
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Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Giles Terera and Samira Wiley are tremendous in this stylish revival of Pearl Cleage’s drama about the Harlem Renaissance

‘Orange is the New Black’ star Samira Wiley swaps scrubs for sequins in this compelling trip to the glamorous demi-monde of ’30s Black Harlem, forming a winning, endlessly watchable double act with ‘Hamilton’ leading light Giles Terera.

Pearl Cleage’s 1995 play ‘Blues for an Alabama Sky’ glitters with the names (and words) of some of the era’s leading lights: poet Langston Hughes, and cabaret artist Josephine Baker, who only found fame by escaping to Paris.

But its real focus is on Angel, a brittle, self-centred showgirl who Wiley plays with wonderful fragility. She’s forever leaning on her friend Guy (Terera), a costume designer who’s proudly gay in a city where that’s a dangerous thing to be. The pair are a joy to watch together, beaming in pride at their own unimpeachable stylishness as they head out for a night on the town, or sharing a joke that’s just hidden from the rapt audience.

Their shyer, more serious friend Delia (played with hilarious earnestness by Ronke Adékoluẹjo) is more focused on social progress than fun. She's opening a clinic to spread the teachings of family planning pioneer Margaret Sanger, while timidly wooing hard-drinking doctor Sam (Sule Rimi), who sees Harlem’s booming birth rate first-hand.

This modern-feeling quartet of friends gossip peaceably over champagne in their cramped apartment – until their little unit is broken apart by Leland (Osy Ikhile), the conservative churchman who longs to convert Angel to dutiful wifedom.

Between scenes, the cast show off their formidable vocal chops in bluesy settings of Hughes’s poems. It's a lovely idea but perhaps it doesn't do enough to lift the slow-paced first act of Cleage’s talk-heavy, action-light play. Lynette Linton’s production is stronger on atmosphere than energy, not quite capturing the messy, bustling, moonshine-fuelled Harlem nightclub world that makes Angel live for the moment, rather than the future.

Sometimes Cleage’s text feels overly heavy-handed, too, in its determination to bring all the tensions of ’30s Harlem down on the shoulders of this little group.

But there’s still so much here to love. This play makes a fraught, fascinating era of Black cultural history feel real and alive. It shows that, then as now, claiming the freedom to live authentically comes with sacrifices. And it paints rich, complex friendships with a warmth that stays with you, long after its final notes have faded.

Written by
Alice Saville

Details

Address:
Price:
£20-£89. Runs 2hr 45min
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