Twentieth Anniversary Production of Pearl Cleage's Blues for an Alabama Sky
Pearl Cleage is the Playwright-in-Residence at the Aliance Theater through the National Playwright Residency Program, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Find out more about her residency experience here, and learn about the impact of the program at large here.
Since Pearl Cleage became the playwright in residence at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, Commons Producer Anne Towns has been documenting her work. To read more about Pearl’s residency, click here.
This season, Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre will present a twentieth anniversary production of Blues for an Alabama Sky by playwright in residence Pearl Cleage. The Alliance premiered the play during their 1995 season, with then artistic director Kenny Leon directing and starring Felicia Rashad in her first role after The Cosby Show.
Through Blues for an Alabama Sky, Cleage hoped to explore the waning days of the Harlem Renaissance, when the stock market crash brought an end to the wealthy patronage that supported many black artists. The play’s central character, Angel, is a free spirited singer and nightclub performer who is becoming increasingly dependent on generous men to provide for her as jobs become scarce. She begins an affair with Leland, a conservative Alabama transplant who offers marriage and security—if she will acquiesce to his traditional and submissive ideas of womanhood. “I wanted to write a black, female character who wasn’t necessarily a ‘good guy,’” says Cleage of Angel. “The audience wants her to find a place to be safe, but they know [Leland] is not the man for her.”
Cleage’s play also explores issues of homophobia and women’s health and reproductive rights through the characters of Guy and Delia, respectively. Guy is an openly gay costume designer who takes Angel in when she loses yet another job. Delia is a neighbor working with Margaret Sanger to provide the women of Harlem with contraceptive education. “This issue is still so relevant,” reflects Cleage. “I mean, Hobby Lobby! Twenty years on, we’re still dealing with birth control issues, women’s rights, homophobia!” However, Cleage cautions, “I don’t want to lean in too heavily on the issues of the play. I’d rather count on the fact that it’s a good play with rich characters—interesting people in an interesting time.”
The inspiration to write Blues for an Alabama Sky struck Cleage during a late night drive from Montgomery—where her first play, Flyin’ West, was being produced by Alabama Shakespeare Festival—to Atlanta. She looked out at the stars as she passed through rural Alabama and began to envision a character that moves from the small-town-south to liberal, Jazz Age Harlem. “Leland’s not a bad guy,” Cleage explains, “he just can’t adjust. I feel sorry for Leland. He’s hard to love because he’s unprepared for change. His religion is his only point of view. In that way, Leland is also a reflection of what hasn’t changed [in society].”
Cleage is thrilled to collaborate again with Alliance Artistic Director Susan Booth on the anniversary production—Booth previously directed Cleage’s The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of Your Presence at a Celebration of Their First One Hundred Years and What I Learned in Paris on the Alliance stage. Booth will be the first female director Cleage has worked with on this play, and she is excited about the possibilities that dynamic could bring to the production.
Cleage is working with the Alliance marketing department to reach out to her vast network of friends and collaborators. Famous names are studded like rhinestones throughout conversations about the production. Possible lead actresses and celebrity promotional partners are matter-of-factly discussed with the same earnestness as local bookstores, feminist organizations, and colleges. Cleage’s deep roots in both the local community and the larger entertainment industry are obvious boons to the theater in promoting the show.
She is also bursting with ideas for bringing audiences closer to the theater and to her work. She wants to reach out to book clubs across the country who are reading Things I Should Have Told My Daughter: Lies, Lessons & Love Affairs—her recently published memoir—to encourage them to read Blues for an Alabama Sky, then make a pilgrimage to Atlanta to see the show. She also hopes to sell the script at the theater; after seeing What I Learned in Paris, many audience members were disappointed there was no recording of the performance. “They want a takeaway,” says Cleage, “and we can’t offer them a DVD, but we can offer the script.” She has requested flyers, postcards, and other materials to take with her to events like the upcoming Decatur Book Festival so she can cross-promote the production with her memoir, and is mulling over the possibility of offering tie-in lectures on the Harlem Renaissance to local schools. She has also committed to leading audience discussions before each Tuesday night performance of Blues for an Alabama Sky. “I want to participate,” she emphasizes, “in any event marketing puts together.”
When asked about her hopes for this production, Cleage muses, “I really like this play. I learned so much writing Flyin’ West that I was able to bring over into this play. For example,” she laughs, “I put lots of scenes of eating in Flyin’ West and it was hard to stage. In this play they only drink champagne, which is easier, though one time in Boston the actor couldn’t get the cork out of the bottle.” Booth has assured Cleage that the champagne cork can be rigged to guarantee timely popping, which is appropriate, because Cleage sees the twentieth anniversary production as a champagne-worthy celebration. “This play gives us an opportunity to look back at my long history with this theater,” she says. “A history that is still being written.”
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I hope that "Blues..." will one day make it to New York City because other than the colleges who have done "Blues...", it has yet to be done by a professional theater company. Ms. Cleage certainly deserve it.