*”Blues for an Alabama Sky,” a riveting play set in1930s Harlem and directed by artistic director Sheldon Epps, is packing them in at the Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, Calif. through Nov. 27 and is racking up rave reviews.
The play, which stars Robin Givens, Kadeem Hardison, Kevin T. Carroll, Robert Ray Manning, and Tessa Thompson, occurs right after the ebullient decade of the Harlem renaissance that is now mired into the depths of the Great Depression.
The play portrays five lively characters as they scramble to survive in a Harlem swirling with poverty, disease and joblessness. As they grapple to overcome their socioeconomic issues, the audience also gets a glimpse into the characters’ lives as they deal with complicated love lives, politics and personalities.
Robin Givens portrays a struggling blues singer and nightclub performer (Angel) who is jilted by her Italian lover and struggles to find a singing job. Her friend Guy (Carroll) is a talented costume designer who dreams of dressing the famous singer and dancer Josephine Baker. Their neighbor, Delia, (Thompson) is a morally upright social worker who is trying to organize a family planning clinic in Harlem. Their friend, Sam, (Hardison) is an affable doctor who delivers babies at Harlem Hospital, and Leland (Manning) is a recent transplant to New York from Alabama who ardently pursues Angel, who reminds him of a lost love.
What unfolds are the stormy loves and lives of the characters that touch on themes of friendship, loyalty, anger and betrayal.
Epps, who is celebrating his 15th anniversary with the Pasadena Playhouse, said that to ensure that the production has an “authentic” feel, the cast poured over “wonderful picture books” about Harlem and studied the clothes of the period.
“We were a beautiful race during that time,” he reflected. “We had such style and elegance and dignity. I particularly want young people to see the play because many of them don’t know about that era.”
But equally as important, Sheldon and the cast were amazed that the same issues that plagued the characters in the 30s — poverty, disease, racism, unemployment — are still overriding themes that resonate in society today.
“What’s scary is that this play was written in the early 90s about the 1930s,” said Epps. “The discussions you hear in the play sound just like discussions you might have heard yesterday. I love a period play, but when a period play speaks for right now, that makes it really exciting.”
Pausing, he added, “The characters are survivors. These are people living in hard times with tough odds.”
Givens says of her character, the volatile Angel, “I fell in love with her. I haven’t felt that way about a character since I was in ‘A Rage in Harlem.’ Angel gives of herself 360 percent.”
Although Givens said she would not make the choices that Angel makes in the play, she is committed to the character. “I think the hardest thing to do onstage is to make choices that are unlikeable.”
Thompson, who plays “Delia Patterson,” said of her character, “She has a moral compass. I think it’s beautiful–and then everything unravels.”
Hardison received chuckles when he revealed, “I’m still working on my character. I’m making it up as I go along.”
Hardison, who plays an overworked doctor at Harlem Hospital, is faced with making a choice in the play that challenges his moral character. “He wants to help light come in,” said Hardison. “He’s a healer. To ask him to go the opposite way is tough.”
Carrol also echoed the sentiment that he was impressed with how people dressed during the era and their sense of grace. “It’s wonderful to bring a sense of ebony elegance to the stage. It’s amazing to see the elegance–but below it is the resiliency of our spirit. At the root of it is our belief and love for each other.”
Manning said he observed that the audience gets really involved with the characters in the play. “I recall I said a line, and I could hear one man grunt his approval in the audience. I can feel people attaching themselves to my character. It’s really interesting to feel what character audience members attaches themselves to.”
Asked what he hopes the play will convey to the audience, Epps responded:
“There are so many big themes in the play, that’s not for us to answer. That is for the audience members to answer. It’s like a painting, we fill in the canvas and you take away from it what you need.”
Epps revealed that it has been a joy working with the talented young actors in the play.
“All of the actors seemed to have gelled in their roles,” he observed. “It’s been a wonderful collaborative experience. This is a supportive cast and a real ensemble.”
“Blues For an Alabama Sky” is playing at the Pasadena Playouse in Pasadena, CA until Nov. 27. For additional information, call (626) 356-7529 or go online at www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org.