McCarter Theatre Center's new production of 'Blues for an Alabama Sky' is a love letter to the Harlem Renaissance
The Harlem Renaissance will come alive on stage at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, New Jersey when the newest production of Pearl Cleage's play BLUES FOR AN ALABAMA SKY runs from May 6-28.
The emotional play, a love letter to friendship, marks the McCarter directorial debut of Associate Artistic Director Nicole A. Watson. Watson spoke with WBGO Journal host Doug Doyle about the show in the Berlind Theater at McCarter.
Watson, a former history teacher, gave her thoughts on the Harlem Renaissance in preparation for directing this show.
"It's such a rich time period. Anytime you're studying a moment in time, there's so many ways into it. Part of the Harlem Renaissance, the part I think most people talk about is the art, the music , the literature, the visual arts, the dances, the sort of Black culture that embeds the Harlem Renaissance, which is amazing and fascinating. And then you also get to study a moment that is still part of America. There's still racism. There are still people who are not Langston Hughes who can study like the every man and woman in that time period. It's right before the great depression. And so how does that impact people's lives. I guess I love studying history, especially with this play, it gives you both the famous people that might be in the textbooks but the play asks us to look at the people who aren't in the textbooks. You know with history not everybody makes it into the books. I love theater because it allows us these access points into telling these great stories of the past in a way that brings them back to life."
In BLUES FOR AN ALABAMA SKY, a close-knit group of friends has become a chosen family in a Depression-era Harlem apartment building. New roommates Angel and Guy — a recently fired blues singer and a promising costume designer with Paris in his sights — live across the hall from Delia, a social worker who sparks a relationship with the hardworking doctor Sam. Their lives are upturned when Southern newcomer Leland arrives and falls hard for Angel, who is torn between a stable life in New York City and an exhilarating overseas adventure with Guy. Angel chooses her path, but the decision leads to devastating consequences that shift the trajectory of everyone’s futures and long-held dreams.
Acclaimed Broadway actress Crystal A. Dickinson plays "Angel" in this production.
"I'm an artist myself, so it is interesting to play a singing artist. That's not my forte. But I think I can really relate to Angel is the struggle of wanting so badly to be great or have people notice you and to have people appreciate your work. As she says in the play sometimes, as a Black woman, people just want her to be around to be a prop or be somebody who is good luck for them. She says to herself, I wish I could have my own good luck, that could be something that's for me. So finding space for yourself as a Black woman and a Black female artist is something that I really relate to and that Angel is going through at the time, how to navigate that and still feel like you are being honest with yourself."
Dickinson has established a close friendship with playwright Pearl Cleage over the years and has even directed one of her plays.
"I used to live in Atlanta. I taught at Spelman College. Pearl attended Spelman College. One of the years I was there, we did all of her plays because she was coming back as a scholar, like an artistic chair. So we did all of her plays to honor her presence. She loved them. She came to me and said I loved what you did. She said you made me want to write another play."
The play Cleage wrote was A Song for Coretta. It was a play about women who were standing in the line to view Coretta Scott King's body. Cleage was so impressed with Crystal, she wanted her to direct it. So that's how Crystal A. Dickinson got her first directing job.
Nicole A. Watson has worked with Crystal before. Watson was thrilled to have some Zoom sessions with Cleage during rehearsals.
"I think there's so much to talk about after seeing this play. I do talk about it as a group of friends, but it doesn't mean people who are exactly alike. In fact, the people in the play have different views on women, on marriage, on religion, on anything you could debate about. I think I want people to continue those debates when they leave the play. I also think the play highlights for me that ignorance is a choice. We can all learn and change or we won't. But it is a choice to not try and understand someone else."
The rest of the talented and veteran cast includes Kevin R. Free (Guy), Maya Jackson (Delia), and Brandon St. Clair (Leland).
The Creative Team for Blues for an Alabama Sky includes: Lawrence E. Moten III, Scenic Designer; Sarita P. Fellows, Costume Designer; Sherrice Mojgani, Lighting Designer; Paul James Prendergast, Sound Designer; Tommy Kurzman, Hair & Makeup Designer; Faye Price, Dramaturg; Teniece Divya Johnson, Fight/Intimacy Director; Kelly Wolter, Dialect and Vocal Coach; Pat McCorkle, CSA, Casting Director; and Matthew Luppino, Production Stage Manager.
You can SEE the entire interview with Crystal A. Dickinson here. You can SEE the full interview with Nicole A. Watson here.