“Blues for an Alabama Sky” directed by Center Theatre Group’s Associate Artist Phylicia Rashad, will take the stage at the Mark Taper Forum through May 8. Tony Award-winning actress Rashad originated the role of Angel in the play’s 1995 world premiere and had attended Howard University classes with Playwright Pearl Cleage.
“It means so much to have met her when we were both 17, trying to do this work we were longing to do.” Cleage said in a phone interview with OW from her Atlanta home. “It’s such a joy for me to be in contact with her about the production. It really is a full-circle moment.”
The playwright noted that when Rashad’s drunk character first stumbled onto a small theater stage 27 years ago, the audience leaned forward to try to catch her.
“They already believed that this woman needed their assistance,” Cleage remembered, adding that this is her goal as a playwright, to have the audience identify with the characters as true human beings.
Set in 1930’s Harlem, the Mark Taper play features actors Joe Holt (Sam); Nija Okoro (Angel); Dennis Pearson (Leland); Greg Alverez Reid (Guy); and Kim Steele (Delia).
Angel is a free-spirited Cotton Club singer who’s out of luck but never out of dreams. Guy is a costume designer waiting for an invitation from Josephine Baker. Delia, a young activist, is progressively starting Planned Parenthood. Sam, a prominent physician, is often out at the club letting the good times roll. And Leland, who recently arrived from Alabama, is haunted by the wide-open skies and lost love he left behind.
The lives of these characters converge with politics as the celebration of the Harlem Renaissance gives way to the Great Depression.
“They’re some of my favorite characters that I’ve written about,” she said. “I love the whole period of the Harlem Renaissance. To take this group of people, who were having a great time during the renaissance, then the stock market fell.”
Historians tend to focus on the Renaissance, but not on what happened once all of that money dried up, Cleage said, noting that the Depression made a huge difference in the lives of the artists, who then had to find a way to gather their rent money and survive.
Cleage got the idea for the play when she and her husband were driving down south at night and seeing the beauty of the starry Alabama sky — which she never saw in the city. A lot of things were going through her mind, as she had just worked with a group of great people on a play in that state, but down the street from that theater, the Klan was marching in protest.
“All the extremes at the same time – the absolute beauty of that sky and absolute horror of the Klan,” she said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done.”
Cleage agrees with the Edison quote that success is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration. She offered advice for those who want to write for a living — read. Potential poets should read poetry, novelists should read novels; playwrights should “get to the theater.”
“Write something every day, whether it’s a journal, a poem, an attempt at a potential first chapter,” she added. “Think of it as if you were a musician, practicing scales every day. We have to practice, the same as a ballet dancer does. We have to be in the studio.”
Once students learn they are a part of the writing tradition, it makes them stronger, Cleage noted.
“You’re not out there floundering by yourself,” she said.
Tickets for “Blues for an Alabama Sky” are currently on sale at Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum and start at $30. They are available through CenterTheatreGroup.org, Audience Services at (213) 628-2772 or in person at the Center Theatre Group Box Office, 135 N. Grand Ave. Performances run Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m., Sunday at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Call for exceptions.
Center Theatre Group requires all audience members to provide proof of full vaccination along with a government or education-issued photo ID upon arrival. Center Theatre Group will also require guests to wear masks at all times in the venue. More information is available at CenterTheatreGroup.org/Safety