Blues for an Alabama Sky at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis

Review: “Blues for an Alabama Sky,” the Best Theater Deal in Town, at the Guthrie

There’s a Broadway-caliber show you can see for as little as $20 that’s currently not getting its due in the Twin Cities. This weekend, I went to see Blues for an Alabama Sky at the Guthrie, which is playing through March 12th, and I strolled up to the rush line 15 minutes before showtime and snagged two prime middle orchestra seats. This wasn’t a lucky find, either, getting the last two tickets in a full house; upon settling ourselves into the Wurtele Thrust Stage, the theater’s largest performance space, a scan of the sparse audience looked like a Tuesday night, not a weekend, with large swaths of multicolored seats still folded up. At intermission, my wife and I scooted over to give our row mates some breathing room. There was plenty of it.

Normally, I’d pat myself on the back for scoring a bargain like this, while others around the city were paying the same price for a specialty cocktail and tip. At the end of the evening, though, standing on our feet for the six actors taking their bows in impeccable period costumes by Sarita Fellows, my good fortune took on a tinge of annoyance: why weren’t more people at this play? This point was hammered home when, upon leaving the theater, two audience members recognized an actor from the show (I didn’t see whom) and said how great he was. “Tell your friends!” he exclaimed, before jogging away into the cold night.

He wasn’t talking to me, but I’m here anyway to implore you all to make a plan today to see Blues for an Alabama Sky. At the time I’m publishing this, you’ve got 13 chances left. 

When you walk to your seat, you’ll see the stage topped with glittering signs for the Savoy Ballroom and Cotton Club, placing this play in the NYC neighborhood of Harlem. But this isn’t the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance, where the potential for Black Americans seemed boundless; rather, for the four friends who anchor this show, the reality of the Great Depression and a backlash against progressivism have sauntered into their self-made haven. The dramatic question posed here by playwright Pearl Cleage’s story: whose dreams will overcome the ever-growing void of this harsh reality? 

Guy Jacobs (played by Lamar Jefferson) and Angel Allen (Kimberly Marable), whose apartment hosts most of the action, are both ambitious artists with varying degrees of success. Guy is a fashion and costume designer whose goal is to join his friend Josephine Baker, the celebrated Black entertainer, in Paris, but he’s waiting on an invitation from her. Angel is a down-on-her-luck singer, having just lost her job after cursing out her Italian-American employer and boyfriend; she’s now looking for another stage and another man. Across the hall lives Delia Patterson (Brittany Bellizeare), a straight-laced idealist who believes “the world shuts down between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.,” per Guy, and who wants to open a family planning clinic in Harlem. The final member of this coterie is Sam Thomas (Stephen Conrad Moore), an overworked doctor who lives a work-hard, play-hard lifestyle, always happy to accept a glass of Champagne and hoping to catch Delia’s eye. 

The audience at a performance of Blues for an Alabama Sky at the Guthrie Theater
The gorgeous set design is by Lawrence E. Moten III.

What we’ve essentially got here are two couples. Guy is unabashedly gay, and Angel asks at the beginning why she and Sam never got together (a sign of her priorities); but despite not being romantically involved, Guy and Angel have a history and hopefully a future, as Guy insists he’ll bring her to Paris with him. Delia and Sam, meanwhile, fall squarely into the will-they-or-won’t-they trope. 

What better way to throw this balance off kilter than with the introduction of a fifth? Cleage introduces an outsider, Leland Cunningham (Darius Jordan Lee), into this happy Harlem home. Recently arrived from Alabama, Leland introduces himself with his “full Christian name.” “And are you a Christian?” Angel asks. “I try to be,” he responds. As we learn, his conservative values will be tried when faced with Guy’s homosexuality, Delia’s abortion-rights activism, and the group’s collective disregard for Prohibition. 

Reproductive rights. Gay rights. The continued fight for Black equality. You’d be tempted to say Blues for an Alabama Sky is eerily relevant in 2023. But to cage this show in the box of relevancy is to undermine it. Most theater companies key in on relevancy when choosing what to stage: why do this show at this moment? Director Nicole A. Watson has done more than tie this 1995 show set in 1930 to the 21st century; she’s made it intimately relatable to the audience. It’s not simply modern society we see echoed in this production, we see ourselves, and so their plights feel more personal. 

In Guy, we see our most optimistic selves (that is, teetering on the edge of delusion) as he waits for Josephine to reach out a hand and pull him to Paris. Of all the characters in this play, Guy feels the most real and compelling because Jefferson balances the jokes he could solely rely on with moments of tenderness and even fear, something Guy loudly denounces when roughed up by bigots on the street (though we get the idea he’s putting on a bit of a front). In Angel, we see our most stubborn selves. Marable has us rooting for Angel, even when she fails to learn from the past. In Sam, we see our most resilient selves, and in Delia we see our most innocent. 

This direct connection with the audience is helped tremendously by Lawrence E. Moten III’s at once sumptuous and inviting set. A massive portrait of Josephine Baker looms over the apartments, which are nicely appointed, but not overly lavish (they’re doing well considering the circumstances, and never want for a bottle of Champagne). The open arrangement, though, with no walls separating Guy and Angel’s apartment from Delia’s, or the inside from the stoop or street, makes it feel like — and please don’t take this the wrong way — a sitcom set. At times, Blues for an Alabama Sky takes on a hint of Friends. That familiarity, the acceptance of the audience into this space, only makes the climax that much more powerful.

When Leland realizes he’s not in Alabama anymore, a rupture only highlighted by Angel’s insistence on calling him “Alabama” instead of his Christian name, despite their budding romance, how will he deal with it? As we’ve learned in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, when it’s hot in New York City, tempers tend to boil over. And when Angel truly sees Leland for the first time, she asks him, “Hot enough for you?” That’s not just a come-on, that’s an omen.

If you’re sufficiently enticed (and I hope you are), let me explain about those $20 tickets I mentioned. Right now, you can buy full price tickets on the Guthrie website for as low as $31. That’s a great deal for this must-see show. But if you want an even more affordable option, the theater offers a rush line where, 15-30 minutes before the show starts on the far right end of the ticket desk in their main lobby, you can get $20-$25 tickets depending on the day of the week. They also have a Rush Club that offers extended timing for purchasing tickets. You can find the full details here.

Blues for an Alabama Sky

Guthrie Theater
818 South 2nd Street
Minneapolis, MN 55415

Playing through March 12, 2023
Learn more here

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