The political and social arguments of a hundred years ago are still prominent—gay rights, bodily autonomy for women, sexism, religious repression and oppression… The binary arguments of extremists asking you to pick a side necessarily ignore the middle ground, the non-abstract reality where humans live, work and love.
This gray area is the agar from which grows the story of “Blues for an Alabama Sky” by Pearl Cleage, directed by Mikael Burke at Remy Bumppo.
In 1930s Harlem, the Great Depression rages on, making work itself a prized commodity, i.e. it’s the worst time to throw a tantrum at your job, get drunk and berate known gangsters. But that doesn’t stop jazz singer Angel (Tiffany Renee Johnson), leading to her expulsion from employment at the famed Cotton Club. Drunk and belligerent, Angel is escorted to safety by her best friend Guy (Breon Arzell), a talented fashion designer and confidently out gay man, and a stranger-Samaritan, Leland from Alabama (Ajax Dontavius).
Lacking employment or residence, Angel crashes at Guy’s place, the only caveat being that she must listen to his outlandish delusions of being in correspondence with the wildly famous Josephine Baker, and that he plans to move to Paris to create costumes for the Folies Bergère.
Delia (Jazzlyn Luckett Aderele) is Guy’s friend and neighbor, a soft-spoken feminist who advocates for women’s reproductive rights, and who drives Guy crazy with her drab wardrobe.
Friend of the group Dr. Sam (Edgar Sanchez) is an overconfident loudmouth who balances his bravado with a radical tenderness; although he teases Delia about her stance on contraception, he also performs illegal abortions for desperate women at his clinic.
This dysfunctional but happy “family” is the embodiment of the famous quote by Maya Angelou, that “Family isn’t always blood. It’s the people in your life who want you in theirs. The ones who accept you for who you are.” Hope abounds. Love flourishes. Support is given freely.
This familial embodiment is quickly dismembered by the reappearance of Leland, a tall, handsome man with a Southern drawl who is smitten with Angel.
Leland is pleasant enough at first. He treats Angel like, well, an angel, as she is the visage of his dead wife, Anna. But Leland’s fundamentalist Christianity is not in line with the sexually liberated lifestyle of Angel’s group, becoming a wedge that threatens to break them apart.
Scattered throughout the snappy patter are moments of deep philosophical, social and political discourse about homosexuality, birth control, abortion, Biblical exegesis and existential doubt. These are from the point of view of average people, more nuanced than speeches given by radical academic aristocrats in the lofty towers of academia.
Should a doctor’s morals allow them to pick and choose which women are allowed abortions? Would you support a woman’s choice to sacrifice their child to go on a fancy holiday? What say does the father have regarding a pregnancy? These are but a few of the quandaries presented that tug at the threads of moral objectivism.
Ultimately, “Blues for an Alabama Sky” is about supporting a women’s right to the same freedom of choice as the other half of humanity, with all the joy, hardships and pitfalls that come with it.
Remy Bumppo Theatre Company presents “Blues for an Alabama Sky” through October 15 at Theatre Wit, 3759 North Ravenswood. Tickets are $36 ($10 for students with valid ID) and are available here.