“Blues for an Alabama Sky” is a powerful character study

rystal A. Dickinson and Maya Jackson on stage.
Blues for an Alabama Sky: Crystal A. Dickinson and Maya Jackson. Photo by Matt Pilsner

A powerful play with an extraordinary cast

McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton ends its first season under its new Artistic Director, Sarah Rasmussen, with Pearl Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky. With this powerful play and an extraordinary cast, McCarter shows that its new leadership has found its artistic footing, promising exciting productions to come. Blues for an Alabama Sky is one for which they should be proud.

The story is set in Harlem during the Depression. Angel (Crystal A. Dickinson) has just been fired from her job at the Cotton Club and moves in with her friend Guy (Kevin R. Free), an unabashedly gay man who has a dream of moving to Paris and designing costumes for Josephine Baker. Their circle of friends includes Sam (Stephen Conrad Moore), a doctor who works at Harlem Hospital and has a private practice on the side, and Delia (Maya Jackson), an introverted woman who is starting to blossom as an advocate for Margaret Sanger’s movement for reproductive health care.

Into this group comes Leland (Brandon St. Clair), a widower recently arrived from Alabama who has a crush on Angel. Angel finds herself torn in two directions: while Guy has already promised that he will take her with him to Paris if and when Baker calls him to design for her, the immediacy of Leland’s romantic overtures appeals to her own fantasies of a dream romance with a strong man as her protector. In contrast, Sam and Delia find themselves slowly edging into a romantic relationship of their own, fulfilling their own long-held dreams.

Director Nicole A. Watson has provided delicate guidance in steering her cast through the emotional turbulence of this play. Watson, McCarter’s Associate Artistic Director, also provides a balance among the five characters so that the production does not emphasize anyone at the expense of the others. Crystal A. Dickinson, who was outstanding in last year’s Wine in the Wilderness at Two River Theater, outdoes herself in bringing the contradictory, contentious Angel to powerful life. Dickinson captures her character’s every nuance, from seductive and romantic to volcanic and violent, in her need to protect herself and her sense of autonomy, blending them all together to create a wholly living, multi-faceted person on stage. Her performance is mesmerizing, and she can lay claim to being one of the New Jersey stage’s leading actresses.

Dickinson is matched by her fellow players. Free is flamboyant, self-assured, and gives the play much of its comic life. However, his Guy can also be brutally honest about life as a gay Black man. His steely determination to succeed both as a designer and as a human being living his own truth keep him from being only comic relief.

Jackson’s Delia travels her own route, starting as a shy but outspoken advocate and blossoming as a person and as a woman in love, and her own romantic fantasies over her pastor, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., provide a saving note of humor. Moore’s Dr. Sam is overworked and conscientious in his professional life. As allusions are made to his character’s past sexual adventures, you see him come to recognize the chance for the love he’s always wanted in Delia. Sam and Delia’s path to love, slow and patient, contrasts with that of Angel and Leland. St. Clair’s Leland, a “good Christian” Alabama man, is as impatient and unrealistic as Angel when it comes to romantic relationships. Leland has brought his Southern country religious beliefs up north with him, and it colors his relationships with the others, especially when those beliefs are challenged.

McCarter’s design team has created a wonderfully open set without walls, suggesting the apartments of Delia and Guy and even the street outside their building. The stage itself is furnished with a row of ornate 30’s-style footlights, a blue velvet curtain that is pulled up and to both sides to open, and a magnificent golden proscenium arch to bring the trappings of the theater to bear on this all-too-human story while suggesting the cabaret-style entertainment milieu of Angel and Josephine Baker. Credit for this goes to Scenic Designer Lawrence E. Moten III and lighting designer Sherrice Majgani, with interspersed music of the time put to good dramatic effect by sound designer Paul James Prendergast. Sarita P. Fellows has created costumes that showcase both the styles and moods of the characters and the creative imagination behind Guy’s clothing design modifications to Angel and Delia’s dresses.

Leland, in one scene, talks about the stars filling the night sky in Alabama and how the New York sky looked like that the night he first saw Angel, the blues singer.

Blues for an Alabama Sky is a deeply moving, romantic drama with much humor. It is a balm for audiences in search of powerful drama. I strongly urge you to see McCarter Theatre Company’s outstanding production of Blues for an Alabama Sky.

Blues for an Alabama Sky is presented by the McCarter Theatre Center at the Roger Berlind Theatre in Princeton through May 28, 2023. For more information or to order tickets, go to mccarter.org or call 609-258-2787.

Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.