Crying at the top of her lungs, "I'm sick of Negro dreams--all they ever do is break your heart!" a middle-aged woman flails away with her fists at the one man who promises he'll rescue her from her dead-end existence. For one brief, glorious moment, it appears that Angel will break free of the well-meaning Leland's unyielding grasp. Momentarily lifting her eyes heavenward, eyes blazing with hope and determination, she wrestles with an excruciating decision: Should she take refuge in the benign safety of her loveless courtship with Leland or forge ahead with her show-business ambitions, never to look back? Pausing for an instant in which every theatergoer seems to take in a quick breath, Angel finally collapses into her would-be hero's arms--to the decidedly mixed reactions of those of us who've been dying to exhale.
So ends Act One of the Denver Center Theatre Company's production of Pearl Cleage's play Blues for an Alabama Sky, now on stage at the Space Theatre. Under the expert direction of DCTC veteran Israel Hicks, Cleage's drama proves to be a breath of fresh air among the stale winds of meaningless social rhetoric.
The heroine of Cleage's story is Angel Allen (Michele Shay), a nightclub singer in 1930s Harlem who drowns her sorrows in bootleg booze after having been fired for transforming her regular act of blues songs into an impromptu tirade against her former lover. Reeling and barely coherent, she staggers home to her brownstone apartment with the assistance of her costume-designer cousin, Guy Jacobs (Reg Flowers), and a stranger from the farmlands of Alabama, Leland Cunningham (Michael Eaddy). The following morning, Angel is visited by her next-door neighbor, fledgling social activist Delia Patterson (Joy DeMichelle Moore), and a Harlem doctor, Sam Thomas (John Wesley), who's also an old friend of Angel and Guy's. Between them, Guy, Sam and Delia manage to raise Angel's spirits and even go so far as to encourage her romantic pursuit of Leland, despite the fact that Guy has designs of his own on the handsome young man.
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For the remainder of the two-and-a-half-hour play, we accompany the characters on their quest for personal fulfillment in a society that seems able to respond to their needs only with the bombast of a church sermon or the empty promise of a social welfare program. The names of prominent Depression-era figures such as Adam Clayton Powell (the activist minister of Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church who somehow survived rumors of skirt-chasing to pass the mantle of leadership to his namesake, a congressman whose own alleged improprieties drummed him out of office in 1970), Margaret Sanger (a white social worker who in 1916 founded Planned Parenthood by starting a clinic in Brooklyn), expatriate entertainer Josephine Baker and poet Langston Hughes are tossed about in household fashion.
The acting in this production is the finest seen on a DCTC stage this season. Leading the company is Shay, who delivers a mesmerizing portrayal of what is perhaps the play's least-redeeming character. With a slight toss of her head, a subtle shift in posture or a self-defeating word or two, Shay clearly communicates to us the underlying emotions of Angel's quasi-tragic character. The superb Wesley imbues Sam the doctor with an appropriate mixture of good-natured revelry and diplomatic skill. His even-handed, rock-solid portrayal lends a much-needed perspective to the always polarizing issue of abortion. Moore makes an alluring ingenue, balancing Delia's determination to do the right thing with an equally true-to-life zeal for indulging her personal desires. And even though Leland's simplistic morals and rock-ribbed demeanor lead him to make reprehensible choices, Eaddy nevertheless wins our empathy. At the very least, you get the feeling that Leland is no less a product of his environment than are the other characters. Flowers takes a similarly sympathetic approach to his multi-faceted costume queen. Because of this wise acting choice, his quiet declaration "I am a man" conveys Guy's simple desire to assert his self-worth rather than becoming a slogan worthy of placards and protests.
To be sure, Cleage's largely middle-brow observations about ordinary people living in extraordinary circumstances seem a little tame in certain portions of the play (the same, of course, was said of Anton Chekhov). But her decision to examine the lives of characters affected by social issues--as opposed to those firebrands who are consumed by them--ultimately provides a more poignant portrait of American urban life than we've become accustomed to seeing from America's playwrights and screenwriters in recent years. We don't find ourselves humming the familiar strains of "We Shall Overcome" at the end of this marvelous production. Instead, as we exit the theater, we can almost hear the words of a spiritual made popular in the days of Adam Clayton Powell Sr.: "Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us/Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us."
Blues for an Alabama Sky, through April 25 at the Space Theatre, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 893-4100.