Hard Luck in Harlem

The first season that longtime American Conservatory Theater actor Steven Anthony Jones has programmed as the new artistic director of Lorraine Hansberry Theatre has been an interesting mix for San Francisco’s most venerable African-American theatre, from an odd pairing of one-acts—a broad slapstick bit of 1960s agitprop with a tense new Brazilian thriller—to a new version of LHT’s traditional Christmas pageant, to a drama about the British psychiatric system. Now the season closes with a trip back to the Harlem Renaissance, the Great Depression and Prohibition with Blues for an Alabama Sky, a 1995 melodrama by Pearl Cleage.

Shinelle Azoroh in Blues for an Alabama Sky. Photo by Steven Anthony Jones.

The play is set in 1930 Harlem, but it would be hard to mistake it for something written in that period, and not just because of all its frank talk about homosexuality and abortion, which are discussed as easily as they might be in 21st-century San Francisco, and just as heedless of any red-state reactionaries that might be in earshot. The dialogue also name-drops major figures of the period like Langston Hughes and Josephine Baker as major offstage characters in a way it wouldn’t back when they were actual contemporaries. One never makes such a big deal about period details when one is actually living in the period in question.

Nightclub singer Angel has just lost her job because she got drunk and told off her gangster ex-boyfriend from the stage in the middle of “I’m Just Wild About Harry.” Having trouble scoring a new singing job in the Depression (at least one that doesn’t involve a casting couch), she’s crashing at the house of her old friend and guardian angel Guy, a gay costumer who’s putting all his energy into an escape plan to Paris. He keeps sending Josephine Baker sketches of outfits he’d like to make for her, hoping that she’ll send for him. Their next-door neighbor Delia is a social worker whose cause is establishing family planning clinics in Harlem.

Cleage’s dialogue has its charms despite some hokeyness, but the play is much too long at three hours and finally descends from high-spirited comedy into full-on melodrama. Fortunately it’s given a solid production by Michele Shay, who played Angel at Denver Center in 1998, and the cast brings out the humor in the script remarkably well.

Shinelle Azoroh has radiant, vampy charisma as Angel, and Tobie Windham is a whirlwind as Guy, forceful and magnetic. Robert Gossett carries a winning world-weary wryness as their friend Sam, a hard-working doctor and hard-playing ladies’ man, though he’s so laid back that he was sometimes hard to hear on opening night. Leilani Rosine Drakeford is awkwardly overstated and oddly shouty as the prim Delia. Joshua L. Green has folksy charm as troublingly old-fashioned but sincere Leland, a young “Southern gentleman” who comes calling on Angel, although he milks it a little too obviously whenever he gets a laugh.

Martin Flynn’s bright and busy set makes effective use of the large stage with simultaneous views of side-by-side apartments, plus a bright orange backdrop looming over the walls with human silhouettes cut out of it. Costumer Karen Perry provides fetching dresses for the ladies and sharp suits and fedoras for the gents. The show has a great jazz and blues soundtrack with a touch of gospel, including several songs sung by Azorah’s Angel or by charming child performer Kiara Fitzgerald in the otherwise nonspeaking part of a neighborhood girl. (The program calls the character “Little Angel,” but there’s certainly nothing in the staging or performance to suggest that she’s a younger version of Angel.)

The story becomes immensely frustrating toward the end, when all Angel’s friends start pressuring her to make the worst possible choice for her life and her friendships. It’s presented as if it’s the only moral thing to do, while her last best hope for a chance at happiness is snatched away by those who profess to care most about her. There’s a lot more involved in all the troubling choices that led to this point, but there’s a “that’s what you get, floozy!” quality to the melodramatic ending that’s just plain perplexing. It’s a shame that a play that inserts such perhaps anachronistically forward-looking values into a retro setting shifts so abruptly into Sunday-school moralism in the home stretch.

Blues for an Alabama Sky
Through May 12
Lorraine Hansberry Theatre
450 Post St.
San Francisco

Show #39 of 2012, attended April 7.

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