Theater review: Alliance reveals splendor of Cleage’s ‘Blues’

Angel Allen, the Harlem showgirl who is the scorching epicenter of Pearl Cleage’s “Blues for an Alabama Sky,” is one of the juicier characters in modern literature.

A fading object of desire who’s as desperate for money as she is a man, Angel schemes, seduces and devours her prey with the very best of them — from Scarlett O’Hara and Blanche DuBois to Regina Giddens and Shug Avery.

First played by Phylicia Rashad at the Alliance Theatre in 1995, Angel has reappeared in Atlanta in the form of stage and television star Crystal Fox. And she’s the molten-hot femme fatale who drives director Susan V. Booth’s 20th anniversary production of Cleage’s masterpiece to its devastating conclusion.

Fox — who was Rashad’s understudy in the original cast — is a charismatic stage personality who imbues Angel with intoxicating swagger and acid sting. She also sings a mighty fine blues.

But Angel is not the only larger-than-life persona in this champagne-and-gin-fueled Harlem nocturne, set in 1930, when the world was roiled, as it is now, by change.

The diva’s entourage includes the flaming, unapologetic homosexual Guy (played to the hilt by Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), who hobnobs with Langston Hughes and dreams of running off to Paris to create gowns for Josephine Baker; buttoned-up birth-control advocate Delia (the lovely Tinashe Kajese-Bolden), who attends Adam Clayton Powell Sr.’s Abyssinian Baptist Church; Sam, a hard-drinking doctor who stays busy delivering babies (Keith Randolph Smith); and Alabama country boy Leland, who is shocked to discover this den of sin (Neal A. Ghant).

Things will not end happily for this group, who flutter in and out of Guy’s apartment and Delia’s across-the-hall abode. But in the meantime, there’s dancing and debauchery, love and courtship, political and religious discourse.

Though Cleage’s plays have, to my mind, softened in recent years (see “What I Learned in Paris” and “The Nacirema Society,” both directed by Booth at the Alliance), here she meditates on the darker instincts of the human heart, even while delivering deliciously frothy dialogue that would be the envy of Golden Age Hollywood writers. (Angel is the kind of creature that Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis and Tallulah Bankhead would have given their eyeteeth to play, and there’s even a reference to “The Women.”)

I love the way the costumes — winkingly designed by Lex Liang — are so rich with commentary, and the way Riccardo Hernandez’s set juxtaposes domestic simplicity against a monumental backdrop of Harlem elegance (a soaring machine-age trestle, a spectacular apartment facade). Robert Wierzel illumines the story with beautiful lighting, too.

While Guy swishes and preens and Delia’s passions are awakened, Angel’s feminist, independent streak takes a selfish turn that recalls Hedda Gabler. The conversations about homophobia, social change and religious intolerance are just as relevant as they were 20 years ago, if not more so.

Funnily enough, this play was first produced on the Alliance’s black-box stage (now the Hertz), and what I remember most was Rashad’s drunken Angel falling flat on the floor. (Ouch.) Here, Booth explodes that intimacy, evincing a vision as clear and crisp as an Alabama sky. While Cleage’s tale is redeemed somewhat by the promise of dreams and the possibility of second chances, it remains a sad, sobering lament.

“Blues for an Alabama Sky” is a play for the ages, and this production comes dangerously, impossibly close to perfection.

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