When the November slot opened up unexpectedly in the Pasadena Playhouse's 2011-12 season, Artistic Director Sheldon Epps remembered a play on his "one of these days" list: Pearl Cleage's "Blues for An Alabama Sky," set in 1930, during the historic Harlem Renaissance period in New York.
Opening today, Cleage's play explores the struggles of five characters as they pursue their varied dreams just as the Great Depression is casting a pall over this era of burgeoning creativity among African American artists, writers, poets and social activists.
Robin Givens, leading a cast of seasoned stage and screen actors, plays Angel, a blues singer from the South who can't get a gig. Angel's close friend Guy (Kevin T. Carroll) is an unemployed costume designer. Sam, played by Kadeem Hardison, is a Harlem Hospital doctor, and social worker Delia (Tessa Thompson), influenced by crusader Margaret Sanger, is trying to establish a local birth control clinic. Meanwhile, Tuskegee transplant Leland (Robert Ray Manning, Jr.) yearns for an idealized Angel.
Epps said that he re-read "Blues" when Frank Tangredi's drama, "Pastoral," previously scheduled for the Playhouse, lost its star, Angela Bassett, to Broadway. Noting that the Playhouse had presented a 1999 production of an earlier Cleage work, "Flyin' West," about women in an all-black pioneer town, Epps was again impressed by "Pearl's great story-telling ability and wonderful use of language and character.
"I was struck in particular by how relevant this play is," he said, "and how so many themes in the play are very contemporary. It deals with issues that were true in that time period, and that are certainly true to what we see in the headlines every day: the economy, joblessness, right-to-life debates and gay-bashing."
Finding the play's emotional balance, however, was a challenge, Epps said. "This play is very funny and entertaining, but it is also emotionally demanding because there are serious issues being discussed. It calls for a great deal of passion and conviction from the acting company."
Luckily, "we have a wonderful ensemble," he said. "The characters in the play are drawn quite vividly by the writing, but they are all very well-cast, in that each of the actors is also a strong individual presence."
The challenges in playing the role of Angel are welcome to Givens, a mother of two, who's "been hiding behind the cloak of motherhood for a bit," she said. Givens, whose TV credits include "The Cosby Show," her breakthrough role on ABC's "Head of the Class" — and more recently, "Chuck," "Nikita," "Drop Dead Diva" and many other shows — has worked extensively on stage, making her Broadway debut in 2006 as Roxie Hart in "Chicago."
In many respects, Angel is "the emotional pulse of the show," Givens said.
"I just fell in love with this whole piece and I fell in love with Angel, who's so full of life, but far more fragile than you would think. I haven't felt this way about a character in a long time."
To capture the look and feel of the time, Emmy-winning set designer John Iacovelli's primary inspiration for both set conception and color palette was a 1948 painting by prominent Harlem Renaissance-era painter Archibald Motley, entitled "Casey and Mae in the Street."
"This wonderful painting shows the buildings and denizens of Harlem in such an affectionate way," Iacovelli said, "but with so much strength and wonderful movement. You can almost hear the jazz of the era. In theater we have the ability to break apart the boundaries to fit the emotion of the story, so I wanted it to look like you're stepping into the painting."
And with a turntable to fluidly shift the action of the play, "it becomes very cinematic," Iacovelli said. "There are also a few surprises that I won't reveal."
"As artistic director, not just as director" of the play, Epps said, "I'm very, very pleased to be getting back to this kind of work with a really terrific company of actors."
LYNNE HEFFLEY is a freelance writer.
What: Blues for An Alabama Sky
When: Opens tonight. Runs Nov. 6 through 27, 8 p.m. Tue.-Fri.; 4 and 8 p.m. Sat.; 2 and 7 p.m. Sun.
Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena.
Tickets and info: $29-$59; premium seating, $100. Rush tickets available at the box office for $20.00 one hour prior to the performance time, subject to availability. Reservations: (626) 356-7529 or www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org.