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A painting of Josephine Baker hangs high above the tinted-blue stage of McCarter Theatre Center's Berlind Theater until Sunday, May 28, 2023. Though Baker never dances out with her long lanky legs and toothy smile, her presence is felt through that painting, like the sun in the sky illuminating the characters (and character flaws) in Pearl Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky, directed here by Nicole A. Watson with precision and grace.
We can almost hear Baker, loud and “laughing like a free woman” throughout this play, which takes place in a 1930s Harlem tenement—because she seems to know the answer to the question that all Cleage’s characters are asking: how do we get free? Free from the violence, job loss, and poverty, which are only exacerbated by the economic flight and rioting that marks the end of the Harlem Renaissance era.
This production begins with free-spirited Cotton Club singer Angel (a cool and confident Crystal A. Dickinson), having just been fired from her job at a nightclub. Down on her luck and her finances, like most in the throes of the Great Depression, we find Angel and her cast of friends. Delia (Maya Jackson) is an activist social worker who is trying to organize a family-planning clinic, Sam (Stephen Conrad Moore) is a doctor who delivers babies and illegally performs abortions at Harlem Hospital, and Guy (Kevin R. Free), Angel’s openly gay, costume-designing friend and caretaker, is leading the charge to follow Baker’s footsteps straight to Paris.
Guy is determined to create a plan that gets him and Angel out of the doldrums of a divested Harlem and into the glorious City of Lights. He sleeplessly designs showstopping costumes for Baker, while Angel flits about. His plan appears to be working until Angel meets Leland Cunningham (Brandon St. Clair), a Southern suitor from Alabama who seems like a quicker, yet riskier, ticket to financial freedom.
Freedom from what?
What did intellectuals and artists of the Harlem Renaissance gain when they migrated away from their lives in the South and headed up North? Freedom from lynching and manual labor? Yes. But also freedom from their land and history, right? Likewise, what did those intellectuals and artists of the Harlem Renaissance gain from leaving New York for Paris, like Baker? And what does our culture lose, when our folks “escape?”
Angel sits at the crux of the story, not quite clear on how to get herself out of her spiraling situation. She is in survival mode, looking for whom she can use most, while taking the least responsibility for how her actions affect those around her. But like they say, you can run, but you cannot hide.
The playwright Cleage is many things that I hope to be someday. A novelist, a dramatist, an essayist, and a poet. She was raised in the Black Arts Movement and you can tell. She started telling stories when she was just two years old to her older sister. She’s alive to see her work done and redone time and time again. Blues for an Alabama Sky came into my life at the right time.
I’m officially off to Paris to build Josephine’s Bookshop this summer and I hope you’ll join me physically or follow along online.
As you can see, Baker is speaking, or better yet, she is teaching us to “laugh like a free woman.”
What, When, Where
Blues for an Alabama Sky. By Pearl Cleage, directed by Nicole A. Watson. $25-$60. Through May 28, 2023, at McCarter Theatre Center’s Berlind Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. (609) 258-2787 or mccarter.org.
McCarter Theatre Center is a wheelchair-accessible venue. On Saturday, May 20, there will be an ASL-interpreted performance of Blues for an Alabama Sky, and an audio-described and open-captioned performance on Sunday, May 21.
Masks are required only at the Wednesday, May 24, 7:30pm, performance.
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