REVIEW: Blues for an Alabama Sky (Greenetree Productions)

    

Elegy for the Renaissance

    

Kelly Owen as Angel Allen and Jaren Kyei Merrell as Guy Jacobs in "Blues For An Alabama Sky" at Chicago's Stage 773

   
Greenetree Productions presents
  
Blues for an Alabama Sky
  
Written by Pearl Cleage
Directed by
J. Israel Greene
at
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through September 19th  |  tickets: $20-$25   |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

Stage 773’s production of Blues for an Alabama Sky has all the trappings of a great play about an important chapter in African American history. Writer Pearl Cleage has a great pedigree for the subject matter and is a one of the authors given the hallowed Oprah Winfrey touch for “What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day”. The set is a gorgeous reproduction of 1930’s Harlem with lush draperies and dusty flocked Kelly Owens as Angel Allen in Pearl Cleage's "Blues for an Alabama Sky", playing in Chicago's Stage 773 through September 19th wallpaper. The costumes fit the period with beautiful rich fabric and spot on accessories. 

However, this play waits until the second act to start building a head of steam.

The play tells the story of a Harlem showgirl named Angel and her best friend Guy, who is a gay costume designer with dreams of Paris. They met in Savannah while both worked at a house of prostitution that catered to all tastes. Kelly Owens plays Angel, and she is a knockout. Ms. Owens portrays the roiling emotions of a woman who doesn’t have the luxury of being liberated and is forced to rely on her sexuality and the tenuous generosity of mobbed up club owners. Jaren Kyei Merrell plays the flamboyant take-no-prisoners Guy Jenkins who has recreated an identity as Guy du Paris. Merrell shines as a man with a dream. He sees that the Renaissance is starting to wane and that Paris is a place for Black people to have their artistic abilities appreciated. Akilah Terry as the sweet and formidable next-door neighbor Delia joins them. Her character is a social worker that has joined forces with Margaret Sanger to get a family planning clinic in Harlem. Ms. Terry plays Delia as virginal, formidable and knowing her own mind. She is costumed in a dowdy suit and hat, which is one of the best punch lines of the play. Rounding out this circle of friends is Lee Owens as Sam – the Harlem physician with a taste for partying, bootleg liquor, and a secret sideline as an abortionist. Into this mix comes a southern gentleman who is mourning his Alabama home for many reasons. Jason Smith plays the role of Leland Cunningham with a sly and deceptive sweetness that veils his character’s moral indignation and fundamentalism.

All of the actors do a fine job with the work that is given them. The problem with Blues for an Alabama Sky is the snail-like pacing. The curtain was ten minutes behind and then the first act was nearly 90 minutes long. If the action and dialog were at a better clip it might work much better, but it’s as if the ensemble has been directed for television with long pauses and extended dark time between scenes.

In the program notes, director J. Israel Greene speaks of the Harlem Renaissance as a simpler time that was rich in culture. Today’s times are parallel with the same societal inequities but he refers to the barricade of Jazz as if it put 1930’s Harlem in a hazy glow. I wish that he would have put some more of that jazz in this production. There is too much expository time in the first act, which makes the second act feel rushed and predictable. The character of Leland Cunningham turns from naïve southern gentleman to homophobic jerk at whiplash speed. It is too much of a stretch that Leland is blind to the fact that Guy is homosexual even if it is the 1930’s and he grew up in Alabama. Also, Angel’s storyline turns cliché when her pregnancy is treated as both an accident and insurance when her financial situation teeters.

Jaren Kyei Merrell as Guy Jacobs in Pearl Cleage's "Blues For An Alabama Sky", now playing in Chicago's Stage 773 through September 19, 2010

At the same time the storyline of Dr. Sam and Delia tiptoeing toward love is almost a throwaway motif. The social worker for family planning and the reluctant abortionist don’t get enough stage time for the plot to be anything other than a weak device to forward the climax of the play.

The most enjoyable scene in Alabama Sky occurs when Guy lets loose on Leland and Angel for playing it safe and small minded. Guy’s expressions are perfect, seemingly channeled directly from some awesome southern black woman. (You will want to use the line about saving the bear – trust me). By the time Mr. Merrell is allowed to really cut loose the play is over.

I recommend this play with some reservations. Be prepared for a long evening and do some reading on the Harlem Renaissance because much is alluded to but never fleshed out about this wonderful time in America’s history. I would also recommend that you check out some reading on the Black expatriate movement to get a bead on the cultural mood and the movement toward Paris.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
  

Blues for an Alabama Sky runs through September 19th. Performances are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8:00pm and Sundays at 2:30. The play is presented at Stage 773 (formerly known as Theatre Building Chicago) at 1225 W. Belmont. For more information visit www.greenetreeproductions.com or call the box office at 773-327-5252.

Blues For An Alabama Sky set - Stage 773

   
  

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Wednesday Wordplay: Bono, Euripides, Samuel Beckett

Motivational Quotes

 

bono

There’s the country of America, which you have to defend, but there’s also the idea of America. America is more than just a country, it’s an idea. An idea that’s supposed to be contagious.
           — Bono, Oprah Winfrey Show, 2002

 

The best and safest thing is to keep a balance in your life, acknowledge the great powers around us and in us. If you can do that, and live that way, you are really a wise man.
           — Euripides

FDR 

Men are not prisoners of fate, but only prisoners of their own minds.
           — Franklin D. Roosevelt, Pan American Day, April 15, 1939

It seems to me that people have vast potential. Most people can do extraordinary things if they have the confidence or take the risks. Yet most people don’t. They sit in front of the telly and treat life as if it goes on forever.
           — Phillip Adams

 

martha stewart 

Life is too complicated not to be orderly.
           — Martha Stewart, quoted in Harper’s Bazaar

 

 

In summer, the song sings itself.
           — William Carlos Williams

samuel beckett 

Ever tried?   Ever failed?   No Matter, try again, fail again.  Fail better.
           — Samuel Beckett

Acquire inner peace and a multitude will find their salvation near you.
           — Catherine de Hueck Doherty

Wednesday Wordplay: Ruben Studdard, Oprah and FDR

Motivational Quotes

ruben-studdard

 

People don’t have to like or support you, so you always have to say thank you.
           — Ruben Studdard, Seventeen Magazine, Sept 2003

 

 

A pound of pluck is worth a ton of luck.
           — James A. Garfield

 

Horace-Mann

Resolve to edge in a little reading every day, if it is but a single sentence. If you gain fifteen minutes a day, it will make itself felt at the end of the year.
           — Horace Mann

 

 

I’d heard it all the time, ‘Live in the moment.’ But if I did that, I’d weigh more than a dump truck. Losing weight wasn’t about the moment at all; it was about having faith in the future. It was about knowing there would be another meal in a few hours.
           — Stephanie Klein, Moose, 20

 

oprah-winfrey It is confidence in our bodies, minds and spirits that allows us to keep looking for new adventures, new directions to grow in, and new lessons to learn – which is what life is all about.
           — Oprah Winfrey, Oprah Magazine, May 2004

 

 

The only way of finding the limits of the possible is by going beyond them into the impossible.
           — Arthur C. Clarke

 

fdr

Happiness lies in the joy of achievement and the thrill of creative effort.
           — Franklin D. Roosevelt

 

 

 


Urban Dictionary

 

mattress worship

Refers to the decision to stay in bed when you are too tired to get up and go to church.
Example: Wally doesn’t go to church; he prefers mattress worship.

Gleeks

Fans of the TV show Glee, which first aired in May 2009.

Example: We’re such Gleeks, we’ve seen every episode twice.

   
   

Wednesday Wordplay: Oprah Winfrey and Steve Jobs

Motivational Quotes

 


steve_jobs_appleSteve-Jobs-now

So we went to Atari and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we’ll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary, we’ll come work for you.’ And they said, ‘No.’ So then we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, ‘Hey, we don’t need you. You haven’t got through college yet.’
           

Steve Jobs


What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others and the world remains and is immortal.            — Albert Pine

 

Every big problem was at one time a wee disturbance.      Unknown

 

frank-herbert

 

Seek freedom and become captive of your desires, seek discipline and find your liberty.             — Frank Herbert, Dune

 

It is impossible to go through life without trust: That is to be imprisoned in the worst cell of all, oneself.             — Graham Greene, The Ministry of Fear

 

oprah-winfrey-show 

The whole point of being alive is to evolve into the complete person you were intended to be.           

         — Oprah Winfrey, O Magazine

 

   
   

Wednesday Wordplay – Oprah and South Park

Inspirational Quotes

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.
            — Charles Darwin

We cannot really love anybody with whom we never laugh.
            — Agnes Repplier, Americans and Others, 1912

I love life…Yeah, I’m sad, but at the same time, I’m really happy that something could make me feel that sad. It’s like…It makes me feel alive, you know. It makes me feel human. The only way I could feel this sad now is if I felt something really good before. So I have to take the bad with the good. So I guess what I’m feeling is like a beautiful sadness.
            — Trey Parker and Matt Stone, South Park, Raisins, 2003

There’s no easy way out. If there were, I would have bought it. And believe me, it would be one of my favorite things!
            — Oprah Winfrey, O Magazine, February 2005

People who are ‘ready’ give off a different vibe than people who aren’t. Animals can smell fear; maybe that’s it. The minute you become ready is the the minute you stop dreaming. Suddenly it’s no longer about ‘becoming’. Suddenly it’s about ‘doing’.
            — Hugh Macleod, How To Be Creative

The moment we begin to fear the opinions of others and hesitate to tell the truth that is in us, and from motives of policy are silent when we should speak, the divine floods of light and life no longer flow into our souls.
            — Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 1890

If you would be wealthy, think of saving as well as getting.
            — Benjamin Franklin

God doesn’t require us to succeed; he only requires that you try.
            — Mother Teresa

To fulfill a dream, to be allowed to sweat over lonely labor, to be given the chance to create, is the meat and potatoes of life. The money is the gravy. As everyone else, I love to dunk my crust in it. But alone, it is not a diet designed to keep body and soul together.
            — Bette Davis, The Lonely Life, 1962

If you would be pungent, be brief; for it is with words as with sunbeams – the more they are condensed, the deeper they burn.
            — Robert Southey

If you limit your choices only to what seems possible or reasonable, you disconnect yourself from what you truly want, and all that is left is a compromise.
            — Robert Fritz

 

 

Urban Dictionary

Aside: Working at Northwestern University, I know all about this phenomenon. 

college morning

(noun) 1. Afternoon.

College Student A: "I don’t have the money right now, can I pay you back tomorrow?"
College Student B: "Sure, just come by tomorrow morning."
College Student A: "Okay!"
THE NEXT DAY, 9 AM
College Student A: "Hey, I have your money!"
College Student B: (waking up) "Goddamn it, I meant COLLEGE MORNING."

Wednesday Wordplay – the iPhone effect

 Inspirational Quotes

 

Give me the luxuries of life and I will willingly do without the necessities.
            — Frank Lloyd Wright, quoted in his obituary, April 9, 1959

It takes a great deal of courage to stand up to your enemies, but even more to stand up to your friends.
 
           — J. K. Rowling

I think that when you invite people to your home, you invite them to yourself.
            — Oprah Winfrey, 20th Anniversary DVD

If you really do put a small value upon yourself, rest assured that the world will not raise your price.
            — Anonymous

Cynicism is not realistic and tough. It’s unrealistic and kind of cowardly because it means you don’t have to try.
            — Peggy Noonan, in Good Housekeeping

Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It’s perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday.
            — John Wayne

Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.
            — Bill Gates, Business @ The Speed of Thought

Many people weigh the guilt they will feel against the pleasure of the forbidden action they want to take.
            — Peter McWilliams, Life 101

Don’t need to say please to no man for a happy tune.
            — Neil Diamond, Cracklin’ Rose

Urban Dictionary

iphone effect

shortly after one person in the group brings out their iphone, the rest follow suit, ultimately ending all conversation and eye contact.

"Hey, what do you want to order for drinks?" "Not sure, let’s see what Imbibe Magazine has for their best beer this month." First iphone comes out of the pocket–enter safari search. Next iphone comes out–enter Facebook post. Third iphone makes an entrance — the iphone effect has arrived.

Wednesday Wordplay: “Crow in the company of cocks” – Malayan Proverb

Inspirational Quotes

 

Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood…Make big plans, aim high in hope and work.
            — Daniel H. Burnham

Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quickly, and get on with improving your other innovations.
            — Steve Jobs

What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine.
            — Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation, 1966

The most powerful factors in the world are clear ideas in the minds of energetic men of good will.
            — J. Arthur Thomson

Minds, like bodies, will often fall into a pimpled, ill-conditioned state from mere excess of comfort.
            — Charles Dickens

Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.
            — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Every time you suppress some part of yourself or allow others to play you small, you are in essence ignoring the owner’s manual your creator gave you and destroying your design.
            — Oprah Winfrey, O Magazine, February 2003

We forfeit three-fourths of ourselves in order to be like other people.
            — Arthur Schopenhauer

Trumpet in a herd of elephants; crow in the company of cocks; bleat in a flock of goats.
            — Malayan Proverb

Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome.
            — Arthur Ashe

Beginning today, treat everyone you meet as if they were going to be dead by midnight. Extend them all the care, kindness and understanding you can muster. Your life will never be the same again.
            — Og Mandino, The Greatest Miracle in the World


Hoi Polloi

(noun)
[hoi’ pah-LOI]

1. the common people; the masses: "We may have less down time, but today, the hoi polloi have access to services and technology that kings of the past did not even dream of."


Origin:
Approximately 1837; from Greek, ‘hoi’: from the + ‘polloi’: the people, literally, the many, from ‘polys.’

In action:
"Well, call me over-excited. Call me sentimental too. Call me worse if you want: I’ll only keep lobbing it back till I get bored. But with all of this in mind I’m going to embrace Saturday’s amazing match as a reason to be cheerful about my homeland. As a game of football it reaffirmed everything the FA Cup is meant to be about, all the adventure, drama and unpredictability inherent in a sudden death competition that, in its early stages at least, gives the hoi polloi a chance to tumble the aristocracy. For all the erosion of its status in recent years, no other nation embraces its knock-out competition and those fantastic qualities the way we do."