If the major TV networks weren’t willing to give much airtime to the Black American or gay experience in the 90s, the stage wasn’t much better, so it’s no wonder, sadly, that this compelling play hasn’t been revived more frequently in the last 27 years. Still, it’s here now, showing in the National Theatre’s largest auditorium, in a hilarious-cum-harrowing production by the Bush Theatre’s artistic director Lynette Linton, with Orange Is the New Black’s Samira Wiley and Hamilton’s Giles Terera steering its turns.
Sule Rimi (Sam) and Samira Wiley (Angel) in Blues for an Alabama Sky. Photo: Marc Brenner
Against the backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance, a time of flourishing and prosperity for Black Americans living in the Manhattan neighbourhood, we meet party-loving showgirl Angel (a skittish, magnetic Wiley) and her gay best friend Guy (a deliciously camp Terera), a costume designer with big dreams of running away to Paris like the legendary performer Josephine Baker. They go out dancing together and console one another through hangovers, job losses and break-ups.
Across the hall is the upright and attentive Delia (Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo, at her most brilliant while being bashfully wooed), who has big ambitions to open a family planning clinic. Regularly dropping in on the trio is their good friend doctor Sam (a loveable Sule Rimi), who proudly claims he’s delivered the majority of black babies in Harlem, but who we learn also performs back-street abortions.
The arrival of Leland (Osy Ikhile, hiding his prejudices behind his manners), a gentleman caller from the Deep South, throws a love-bomb-shaped grenade at Angel and Guy’s friendship. Alabama is not just a state, it’s a state of mind, the group wryly notes of this outsider, who plans to whisk Angel away to a more secure but strait-laced future.
The drama unfolds on Frankie Bradshaw’s doll's house-like set, with fire escapes and a run of brownstone steps lending the block its Manhattan address. An underused ensemble occasionally appears in the building’s windows and doorways, singing bluesy harmonies between scenes.
Samira Wiley (Angel) and Osy Ikhile (Leland) in Blues for an Alabama Sky. Photo: Marc Brenner
Costumes are more than period outfits here. It’s through Angel’s dresses, also designed by Bradshaw, that Cleage betrays her character’s wavering frame of mind: we see her swap her glittering party number for Leland’s dowdy one as she flirts with the fresh start he’s offering, but later shrug back into her sequins as she rejects it. Some of her later decisions are agonising to watch, but then neither her current or proposed lifestyle can truly offer her the freedom she craves.
Through a string of carefully paced entrances to the stage, Linton allows her audience to pre-empt each blow of the play’s climactic fallout before it happens, but regardless, you’ll likely find your heart in your mouth as a shock revelation sees Leland’s traditional values collide catastrophically with Angel and Guy’s hedonistic lifestyle.
Few of this year's revivals seem as worthy of their place on a major London stage as Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky, and Linton’s production distils its every beat.
Book your tickets here.
|What||Blues for an Alabama Sky, National Theatre review|
|Where||National Theatre, South Bank, London, SE1 9PX | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Waterloo (underground)|
21 Sep 22 – 05 Nov 22, 7:30 PM – 10:15 PM
|Price||£20 - £89|
|Website||Click here for more information and to book|