Depicting a picture of hope amongst the hopeless, Lynette Linton’s Blues for an Alabama Sky is a striking adaptation …
Pearl Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky takes us to the beating heat of Harlem, during a time of both vivacity and despair; of the cultural blooming from the Harlem Renaissance alongside the economic ruin of the Great Depression. This unsteady balance is what Lynette Linton’s adaptation provides, with laugh-out-loud humour in one moment, then a reminder of the futility of ‘negro dreams’ in the next.
Leading the talented main cast is Samira Wiley (The Handmaid’s Tale ) as Angel, an out-of-work Blues singer with questionable taste in men. She resides with her friend, Guy Jacobs (Giles Terera), who provides flamboyance and excellent comedic timing, with a Baldwin-Esque dream to flee to Paris where he can sew for the enigmatic Josephine Baker for the rest of his days. The two spend much of their leisure time illegally drinking with roguish doctor Sam Thomas (Sule Rumi), who, when he isn’t drinking or delivering babies to wearied mothers of Harlem, courts God-fearing neighbour Delilah Patterson (Ronke Adékoluejo).
Angel finds herself falling for Southern gentleman Leland Cunningham (Osy Ikhile), whose charm isn’t as harmless as it appears. Their lives intersect and entangle, forming a labyrinth of connections in the bustling city. The talent of the ensemble must not be understated, they breathe life and beauty into the play through their incredible voices and I felt myself wishing that their goosebump-inducing musical numbers (composed by Benjamin Kwasi Burrell) were not relegated to the opening and closing of acts and to the occasional transition.
The apartment block that our characters reside in is impressively rendered on stage through a comprehensive reproduction of the front rooms on the ground floor – complete with beams, windows, and stairs – as though a dollhouse had been sliced through and propped up on stage. Designed by Frankie Bradshaw, this spectacle of a set also rotates, and while technically impressive, I felt that it might have been better to save this for the significant moments, as incremental turns did not feel entirely necessary. The grandeur of the set might have been overstated for the domestic drama, but it also allowed for the utilisation of the stage in an impressively three-dimensional manner, reminiscent of the 2020 National Theatre production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (designed by Magda Willi).
The costuming was equally striking, particularly with Angel and Guy, with one particular sparkly dress for Angel (befitting to her namesake) stealing the show. In comparison to the realism of the set, some of the costuming choices were difficult for me to accept, lacking specificity to the time with the addition of certain modernisms; such is the difficulty of costuming for period pieces.
The economic turbulence of the American Depression is reflected in the instability of the character’s personal lives, where job and housing security is bestowed on the lucky (and wealthy) few. The play is a depiction of what it is to have hope amongst the hopeless, with Delilah’s dreams of providing birth control to poverty-stricken mothers in Harlem, a small solace in a world that seems determined to crush the potential for meaningful change at every turn. Individual selfishness takes hold, with Paris becoming a Mecca, a place to flee and leave behind the limitations of being poor and Black in 1930s New York.
At times, the play struggles with the construction of the plot, with a quite literal Chekov’s gun being introduced, and inevitably used, a ringing reminder that the good and the joyful can be shattered in the time it takes to pull a trigger.
Blues For An Alabama Sky runs @ the Lyttelton, National Theatre until 5th November. Find out more and book tickets here.