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Memphis Flyer Oh Sweet Home

Circuit's Blues for an Alabama Sky: It ain't a party till somebody dies.

AUGUST 31, 1998:  When Lynyrd Skynyrd sings the line in “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Watergate does not bother me, does your conscience bother you? – now tell me true,” they might as well be translating the work of Anton Chekhov. In the Russian realist’s unsettling Uncle Vanya, he proposes that the world’s greatest ills are but flotsam, an aggregation of scum in a great meandering river of “little intrigues.” In the bleak Chekhovian landscape, faith is often a ticking time bomb and hope a deceitful agent that appears to sustain life while it thoroughly corrodes everything it touches. Still, Chekhov provides the audience with dazzling glimpses of excruciating beauty that occur whenever his characters take hold of a moment and squeeze the juice out of it. It is this ability to find sustained joy in the midst of tragedy that has made his plays so enduring; they are like blues songs from a part of the world that gets very cold. Set in Harlem as the Twenties roared and jazz poured out of American clubs and into the Parisian night, Pearl Cleage’s Blues For An Alabama Sky is an artfully crafted, and wonderfully old-fashioned play that could have easily slipped from Chekhov’s pen had Chekhov been a brother.

Fueled by the kind of disposable income that can only come from bootlegging and embraced by a moneyed white interest out to reclaim the “primitive” for the sake of all things modern, Harlem experienced a cultural explosion in the Twenties. Against this electrified backdrop, Blues for an Alabama Sky’s tragic tale unfolds. Blues is a true ensemble piece with no starring roles, and it is too bad that the unevenness of the performances prevents it from ever really cooking. Kenneth Farmer takes a healthy stab at playing a “notorious homosexual” who longs to design costumes for Josephine Baker, but his performance is stiff and his carefully planned gestures are almost painful to watch sometimes. Farmer understands the character, and could improve as he grows more comfortable with his role, but even then he lacks the scenery-chewing flamboyance that could make his character truly memorable.

As Angel, an out-of-work chanteuse who would rather marry a man she doesn’t love than learn to type, Cynthia Farmer (Kenneth’s real-life wife) also misses the mark. Angel is a manipulative diva who is very good at being bad, but in Farmer’s hands she is seldom more than a lazy whiner. When she cuts loose with a few bars of the “St. Louis Blues,” it is with the timidity of someone who is afraid of her own voice, not at all like the gutsy singer who could easily give la Baker a run for her pasties. It is hard to believe that this Angel could be capable of inflicting enough psychological pain to make a good man snap and turn murderous. But, as Leland, the God-haunted Alabaman, Terrell Smith turns in a performance that is so full it hardly requires Farmer’s assistance. A sweet-faced, physically imposing man with ham-sized fists, Smith presents a simple carpenter whose deadly actions stem from the rigid morality of his rural upbringing. It is a genuinely disturbing portrayal.

In the role of Sam, a successful Negro doctor and professional bon vivant, Jerry Lee Lovelace Jr. is right on the money. His laughter infuses Blues with a sense of joy that counterpoints the play’s tragedy, giving it resonance and meaning. “Let the good times roll!” is his motto, and it is sound advice, providing that the good times are tempered with responsibility and hard work. As the doctor’s love interest, a thoroughly progressive woman who is determined to bring planned parenting to Harlem, Ann C. Perry could not be better.

Director Harry Bryce, who gave us last season’s finest example of ensemble acting with his production of Master Harold...and the Boys, wasn’t able to get Blues up to speed for opening night. Many of its flaws are likely to correct themselves with time, however, and Blues is worth checking out for the sheer enjoyment of a script that is a throwback to the days before TV rotted our attention span, and life on stage could be revealed slowly and in great detail.


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