A Word In Edgewise: Bama, Boundaries, Baker and the Blues

Pearl Cleage’s found family is like every other– yet unique. Now, is Summer, 1930, Harlem, where thousands of Blacks have joined the Great Migration north, fleeing Jim Crow segregation to seek jobs, opportunities, freedom. They’re four; Guy, Angel, and Delia rent two apartments, while Sam, older, lives elsewhere, but spends many hours with the trio, particularly Delia.

Guy, a gay costume designer shares with Angel, a talented but mercurial, alcohol-fueled nightclub singer, who’s just been fired. Into the opening scene lurches Guy, steering a near-blotto Angel home after getting the boot. A stranger approaches, offers to help. Angel encounters Leland, fresh from conservative, small-town Alabama, a greenhorn in the rowdy, anything-goes Harlem the others now navigate easily.

Leland comes ‘round again, and Angel sees a possible solution to her financial woes. Guy’s kind, but committed to his career…and gay. Leland, smitten by Angel’s resemblance to his late wife, presses suit. Angel responds.

Guy is willing to do what it takes to get to Paris where his muse Josephine is already a succès fou. Guy assiduously create gowns on spec, writes Josephine often, but will she respond? He’s offered to buy Angel a ticket to Paris, give her time to regroup, but Angel craves security, not dreams.

Delia, across the hall, is mild, but neither meek nor unfocused. A feminist, she’s looking to found a Margaret Sanger Family Planning Clinic there in Harlem. Sam is a medical doctor, the only aid available to many Black women during a pregnancy or its termination.

Angel rushes headlong through life. Opening a package, she snaps up a red dress meant for Delia and pulls it on, sashaying about assuring Delia how much better she can wear it. Delia cedes, yet shortly after, Angel appears in Leland’s gift of a more “modest” dress, acutely aware upon which side she’s buttering her bread.

Leland voices his disapproval of homosexuals, of women’s rights, alcohol and any other of Harlem’s social and religious sins he encounters. He rejoices to learn Angel is pregnant, “a son!” oblivious to her reaction. She calls, enlists Sam.

All does not resolve as the viewer expects, though the characters hew to their innate patterns of behavior, as many will in any such group. Angel’s terror at being left “a broke old woman” leaves no room for remorse, and her attempt at self-preservation brings destruction for some, while others, constitutionally more adaptable, move on.

Cleage crafts each character with crystalline accuracy, attaining a double-edged impact that these stories hold in their timelessness. The Harlem denizens, the gob-smacked Alabamian are not exotic insects held up for today’s scientific scrutiny, but hark back to one’s own past…”Our bunch in the 60s…” Guy, Angel, Sam, Delia all initially behave as their nature dictates, and, as ever, some rise to success, fail, or walk their treadmill to the end

What price will you pay for freedom? Once you’ve paid, what will you do with it? Some carry on, some don’t–or can’t. Blues for an Alabama Sky targets problems still unresolved nearly 100 years on: racism, homophobia, misogyny, women’s bodily autonomy. How did members of your found family fare? And you?

A brilliant and unforgettable evening of theater, Blues for an Alabama Sky will play on the Guthrie’s Wurtle Thrust Stage through March 12.

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