At the age of 74, the writer Pearl Cleage is about to have a moment in Chicago. Next week, the Goodman Theatre opens the first Chicago production of Cleage’s 2010 play, “The Nacirema Society,” a piece about Black debutantes in Montgomery, Alabama, coming out even as Martin Luther King Jr. prepares to march on Selma. And various workshops and panels are planned at venues all over town this fall.
But it’s Remy Bumppo Theatre that has kicked off the Cleage Festival with a revival of Cleage’s “Blues for an Alabama Sky,” and it sets a high standard for all that follows.
That’s thanks in no small part to the gifted director Mikael Burke.
Burke mostly has worked to date with more symbolic and experimental pieces (often at About Face Theatre), whereas Cleage’s 1995 work is a realistic, crafted, well-made play. But as is often the case, in my view, a director less tied to that genre turns out to be an excellent match, infusing the action with precisely the kind of honesty, irreverence and restless vitality the play needs.
“Blues” might be familiar to some regular theatergoers; I first saw the play in the 1990s and last reviewed it at Court Theatre in 2017, in another successful and fully alive production directed by Ron OJ Parson.
Burke’s show, though, is staged in a more intimate studio at Theater Wit (down the hall from another fine fall show, Shattered Globe Theatre’s production of “A View From the Bridge”), and the most impressive aspect of Burke’s very present-tense work is how credible everything and everyone seems and feels here, even though they are living in Harlem in 1930 but also just a few feet from the front row of the theater.
In essence, the play is about characters trying to hold their idealism, and their relationships, together even though conflict and potential disaster lurk around every corner. The piece charts the clash of dreams and painful realities, Black hopes and racist strictures, but also dives deep into the melding of different Black cultures, both liberal and conservative, in the Harlem of that era.
Specifically, we meet Guy (Breon Arzell), a self-described “notorious homosexual” who designs costumes for cabaret artists and dreams of working in Paris with Josephine Baker. Guy’s roommate is Angel (Tiffany Renee Johnson), a striving-for-security showgirl who finds many auditions not to be as they seem. Across the hall lives Delia (Jazzlyn Luckett Aderele), who is working with Margaret Sanger on birth control, a controversial subject in Harlem, and is falling in love with a good-hearted local doctor, Sam (Edgar Sanchez). Into this sophisticated Uptown milieu walks Leland (Ajax Dontavius), an intense transplant from Alabama who we see early on carrying a gun for his own protection, not just from the streets but from cultural change.
All of these actors are excellent: Arzell, who I have watched for years, is especially on fire here, driving the swiftly paced production through sheer force of personality but also opening a vein of vulnerability. It’s a terrific piece of acting, although everyone around him is also very much in tune with the play’s theme of how life teeters on the brink of triumph and tragedy. You never are pulled out of the tense action (despite the running time) and the show is staged and performed as if anything might happen. At Sunday’s show, the response was deeply enthusiastic.
If you’ve never seen the play, you don’t need the plot spoiled. Know, though, this is one of the best works of its decade, coming at the middle of Cleage’s most fertile period of dramatic writing, before she began to put more attention into writing novels. “Blues for an Alabama Sky” is a rich piece of writing that holds up wonderfully today, especially when staged with this kind of intimate honesty.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “Blues for an Alabama Sky” (3.5 stars)
When: Through Oct. 15
Where: Remy Bumppo Theatre Company at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes
Tickets: $36-$52 at 773-975-8150 and www.remybumppo.org