Blues Complex

ATC Explores The Decline Of The Harlem Renaissance.

By Margaret Regan

UP IN HARLEM in the '20s things were hopping. Operating as a kind of mini-Promised Land for African Americans, Harlem sounded a siren for writers like Langston Hughes, whose Harlem poems about the black experience (remember "A Raisin in the Sun"?), are some of the best ever written on the subject. Incubated in the southern juke joints, jazz and the blues had metamorphosed into an urbane music. Their new rhythms were shaking at the Cotton Club, drawing even the whites uptown. Streams of impoverished southern immigrants flooded Harlem, but there was a new optimism among black social activists, including the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, who preached social change from the Abyssinian Baptist Church. A forward-looking black middle class, doctors and teachers and lawyers, settled into the elegant brownstones.

Review This was the Harlem Renaissance, and its biggest problem was that it lasted too short a time. Pearl Cleage's wonderful play Blues for an Alabama Sky takes a look at the Renaissance in decline, when the 1930s Depression clamped down on Roaring Twenties glee, when the money for the clubs dried up, when the artists started to scatter. Exquisitely staged by director Timothy Bond and impeccably acted by a troupe of five, Blues is offered by the Arizona Theatre Company at the Temple of Music and Art. Written by a gifted storyteller, it's as euphoric and melancholic as Harlem itself.

Atlanta playwright Cleage has said that she's not a historian. So while the real-life Hughes and Powell and faraway Josephine Baker hover offstage like unseen heroes, the play's on-stage characters come straight out of Cleage's imagination. Minor players of the fading Renaissance, her people congregate around the tiny first-floor flats of a Harlem brownstone.

Two of them migrated North together from back-water Savannah, and they've hitched their fates to the district's disintegrating clubs. Timothy McCuen Piggee is a joy as Guy, a gay costume designer who improbably dreams of designing in Paris for Baker. He even keeps a photo of his beloved Josephine in a kind of shrine, just across the bed from the sewing machine. Flamboyant, hilarious and utterly compassionate, Guy takes care of the seductive Angel, a down-on-her-luck singer who tends to rate men by how willing they are to pay her rent. Trish McCall plays Angel with a deft ambiguity, moving by turns from insolence to anguish. One minute she arches her body to show her delectable wares, the next she's crumpled by emotional pain, with sorrow flickering delicately across her face.

A couple of tentative lovers labor in Harlem's social services. Amiable Johnny Lee Davenport is Sam, a devoted doctor too easily lured by the booze and muses of the nightclubs. He's a good man, though at 40 he's been too long a loner who shuffles through life in rumpled suits. The radiant Kwana Martinez plays Delia, the buttoned-up young woman who lives across the hall from the hard-drinking Guy and Angel. An earnest young social worker and devotee of Rev. Powell, Delia wants to preach the gospel of birth control to Harlem's poverty-stricken fertile.

Into the midst of this unlikely quartet walks a classic dramatic device, a gentleman caller made hunky flesh in the form of Leland (Adrian Bethea). A conservative Christian from Deep South Alabama, Leland has the off-the-wall idea to take Angel for his wife. She just might let him, hardworking provider that he would be. But while he claims to love her, Leland abhors the slippery city values that Angel and her friends represent, whether its Delia's proselytizing for sinful birth control or the utterly appalling homosexuality of Guy.

Cleage is too good a writer to make any of these characters all good or all bad. Leland is as rigid as they come, but he's an honest man, and you have to respect his willingness to take responsibility in life. It would be too easy to peg Angel as a purely downtrodden woman, and Cleage doesn't let her off the hook for the wrongs she commits. Their conflicts make an interesting counterpoint to the mythology of the free-wheeling Harlem Renaissance. Not everybody approved of the new social experiments. Clearly there was (and is) a strain of conservatism among American blacks, much of it church-linked. In the play it manifests itself not only in the torching of Delia's clinic, but in the slow smoldering of Leland's rage.

It's surprising to find the late 20th-century cultural wars over sexuality and reproduction rearing their ugly heads in a play set in 1930, but Cleage's tale argues persuasively that this American rift goes back a long ways. In our tiresome contemporary debates, though, left is always left and right is always right. It's one of the many pleasure of Blues for an Alabama Sky that not once do any of the deliciously complex characters get reduced to a party line.

Arizona Theatre Company's Blues for an Alabama Sky continues through Saturday, January 30, at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. Performances are daily, except Monday and Tuesday, January 25 and 26. Tickets range from $19 to $28. For information, call 884-4877. For reservations, call 622-2823. TW

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