AN EXCELLENT production of a well-structured, beautifully written drama by Pearl Cleage opened Ujima's season at TheaterLoft on Elmwood Avenue last week.
Complex, funny and tragic, "Blues for an Alabama Sky," directed by Philip Knoerzer, takes us on an emotional ride through the lives and dreams of five characters living in Harlem during its explosive artistic renaissance of the '20s and '30s.
Oddly enough, though Harlem at this time was giddy with an enormously influential intellectual and artistic efflorescence, these five characters end up out of there in a big way. Those who would stay go, those who would go, go, until no one is left but a cynical, heartbroken every woman who played too long and gave up too soon.
In reviewing my notes on the production, I have asterisks around Larry S. Sayres' name many times over. His performance as the sophisticated gay designer Guy Jacobs is just splendid. As a man stuck on Josephine Baker and determined to get to Paris to be her personal designer, he is wry, sly, fey and marvelously on the money.
His is a very funny characterization that never diminishes the strength of the character. For Guy, despite his mincing step, limp wrist, sardonic commentary and sartorial preoccupation -- all of which constitute the semiology of the effeminate (hence outcast) man -- is a spiritual savior of the women he loves in every sense of the word. His dream sustains him, and it's big enough in which to wrap the wounded so he can carry them safely to the other side.
One of his injured pals is Angel Allen, former prostitute, cabaret singer, alcoholic and somebody's would-be honey. She is played here by Lorna C. Hill, who gives the cynical Angel the hard edge and desperate soul of a woman who seeks but never attains the salvation. She suspects it isn't out there anyway, and just in case she's right, pours another belt. Angel, torn between hope and despair, makes one last attempt to grab the ring, loses her balance and hangs herself instead. Like an anti-Guy, she also takes a few out with her.
Guy's neighbor, Della Patterson, is a young, nunlike social worker with dreams of family planning clinics all over Harlem and a big crush on her pastor, Adam Clayton Powell. Her attempt to get church backing for her clinic offers an opportunity for a beautifully articulated argument for and against such practices in the black community. It has been argued before but seldom as lucidly as it is here. Della is played by Roslyn Ruff, who, by the way, looks absolutely stunning in her simple but beautifully selected period costumes.
Gerald C. Ramsey, always convincing and usually as a glad-hander, is a Harlem doctor here. He is worldly-wise, a snappy dresser, funny as well as smitten with and smote by the pretty Miss Patterson. Their unlikely courtship does not take either where they expect to go, but they are well-matched on stage with Ruff retiring and rigid and Ramsey outgoing and loose.
Finally, young Roosevelt Tidwell III plays the handsome stranger Leland Cunningham, who enters portentously in the first scene and stays on for the ride. The simplicity of his countrified ways and his earnest pursuit overwhelm Angel. Cast as a goddess, she is relieved and ready to take up a life with him. In the end, however, she remains stuck in the skin into which she has sewn herself. This bodes ill for all concerned and determines the outcome for every character but the firm-hearted Guy. He alone, despite his deep affection for his friend, is not sucked into her self-deception and moves on in spite of her.
It's a long one -- nearly three hours -- but you won't be bored. Good show.
Blues for an Alabama Sky
Drama by Paula Cleage, about the Harlem Renaissance around the start of the Great Depression.
Directed by Philip Knoerzer for Ujima Theatre Company, featuring Lorna C. Hill, Larry S. Sayres, Gerald C. Ramsey, Roosevelt Tidwell III and Roslyn Ruff.
Performances continues Thursday to Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 6, through Oct. 12. TheaterLoft, 545 Elmwood Ave. (883-0380).