Six Angels Singing the ‘Blues’

Pearl Cleage’s drama “Blues for an Alabama Sky” drops the audience into the world of Harlem Renaissance artists after the Champagne has stopped flowing.

They include the tantalizing lounge singer Angel Allen and her roommate, Guy, a confident gay costume designer. Leland, an Alabama transplant, comes to be part of their dysfunctional family of artists, who are grappling with poverty, pregnancy, homophobia and how to create in desperate times.

First presented by Atlanta’s Alliance Theater in 1995, “Blues” has been consistently produced regionally and at universities since, but Keen Company is staging the first major New York production beginning Feb. 4, directed by LA Williams. The show is slated to run through March 14 Off Broadway, at Theater Row.

“These characters have been moving around in New York,” Cleage said by phone recently. “Now they are in New York.”

It is Angel in whom many black actresses, including Phylicia Rashad, Robin Givens and Jasmine Guy, have found an ideal leading lady. She is straight-shooting and charismatic, a bit past her prime but slinking her way in and out of men’s lives — always to their detriment.

Rashad, a few years beyond “The Cosby Show,” originated the part in a show directed by Kenny Leon. “Rashad’s Angel is worn down by life but still a fighter, and still a full-blooded woman,” The Washington Post wrote in its review when the production moved to Arena Stage there. “She’s more sensual putting on a dress than most women are taking one off.”

While writing “Blues,” Cleage wanted to portray characters not typically found onstage. When Alliance remounted it on its 20th anniversary, she rewrote the ending, leaving Angel unredeemed. “People don’t always see the light,” the playwright explained.

On the eve of its New York premiere, The New York Times spoke to six actors who’ve played the role, including Alfie Fuller, who is starring in the Keen Company production. How did Angel help them take flight? Edited responses follow.

The Tony Award-winning actress and director has been friends with Cleage since they were theater students at Howard University in the 1970s. She performed in “Puppetplay,” one of Cleage’s earlier works.

“I had not seen or spoken to [Pearl] in some years when Kenny Leon approached me. The fact that Pearl had written it was enough to persuade me. The period in which the play is set, the world in which it takes place, during the Harlem Renaissance, is a very exciting time in human history. Angel is a beautifully complex human being who knows her physicality, but not her self. The role couldn’t have come at a better time in my career.”

The star of “Tyler Perry’s The Haves and the Have Nots” on OWN and Perry’s new Netflix film “A Fall From Grace,” she understudied Rashad in 1995 and starred in the Alliance’s 2015 revival, directed by Susan Booth.

“People tend to marginalize us; they don’t show the varying shades of black women at all. The thing I love about Angel is that people want to make her sweet or downtrodden so you can root for her. Angel shakes you up. I love how people come to ‘Blues for an Alabama Sky’ and they fall in love with her all the way through. Then, at the end, they’re side-eyeing Angel and you don’t know where to put her. For me, that makes her human. That’s a testament to Pearl.”

Her first lead role was in the 2011 African Continuum Theater Company production of the work in Washington. She is now a performing-arts consultant and splits her time between Washington and New Orleans.

“The director, Walter Dallas, created these beautiful tableaus. In the final scene, he had Angel standing alone after everyone had departed. I was staring out into the audience beneath this beautiful blue light with gorgeous music playing behind me. It was hard as an actor to not be personally overwhelmed. I am a black woman and I have had to sacrifice a whole lot in life just trying to do well, be well and make myself proud.”

Played Angel in 2012 at the Lorraine Hansberry Theater in San Francisco just after graduating from the American Conservatory Theater. She co-starred in the 2019 feature film “Don’t Let Go” opposite David Oyelowo.

“Angel gave me permission to trust my insecurities and strengths. [During rehearsals ] I was very emotional and didn’t have the confidence to lead the play. [The director] Michelle Shay called a rehearsal with only me. She sat across from me — quiet and regal — and she said, ‘Angel is scared too.’ I believe she was giving me something each of those characters give one another: creative energy, freedom to be reckless and love.”

Played Angel in the 2017 production at Chicago’s Court Theater, directed by Ron OJ Parson. It was her first leading role in a play and the experience motivated her to move to Los Angeles to expand her career. She is now a star of the forthcoming Netflix series “Warrior Nun,” which is based on a manga graphic novel.

“At the time I played Angel, I was working on getting my own independence and changing as a woman, which in turn made me start evolving as an artist. I dug deep into the history of the time and listened to a lot of Bessie Smith … During the rehearsal period we talked about what it would have meant for Angel to have to go back to the South [if things did not work out economically in Harlem]. She would’ve had to settle down, get married, have kids. For her, that’s a death sentence.”

“Blues for an Alabama Sky” follows up her roles in the Off Broadway hits “Is God Is” at Soho Rep and “BLKS” at MCC Theater.

“It is not often that I come across a woman character who acts in her own self-interest, is unapologetic about the choices she makes. When we were doing table work, a lot of the male actors were very angry with Angel, describing her in ways that I thought were completely unfair, saying that she’s an evil villain. How many times in the American theater have we watched men characters act in their own self-interest? All the time. We don’t sit around the table calling them villains. These characters are celebrated. Men desire to play these characters.

[I asked my castmates] why is it that a woman, who in 1930 has agency over her own body and does not have any loyalty to the church, which is such a big thing in black stories, described as evil? I’m not saying she’s perfect, but who is? Angel is a woman who is trying to do the best she can with what she has. She is figuring it out on her feet like everyone else.”

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