Review: BLUES FOR AN ALABAMA SKY at Center Theatre Group

At the Mark Taper Forum through May 8th

By: Apr. 14, 2022

Review: BLUES FOR AN ALABAMA SKY at Center Theatre Group

Pearl Cleage's Blues for an Alabama Sky at Center Theatre Group gets a few topical buzz words in there, but there is nothing fresh, urgent, or timely about the piece. Pitting a closed-minded character against a cohort of progressive friends, the play is deadly: as dull as its message is heavy-handed. From an oversized print of Josephine Baker to a few jazzy sound bites between scenes, Phylicia Rashad's staging lacks any nuance which may keep an audience invested, and perhaps the only dramatically intriguing choice of the evening was made by set designer, John Iacovelli, who placed a glass door center stage which reflects up to the audience the old man dosing off in the front row reading his program.

Though Iacovelli generously grants us this novelty, his design is the foundation upon which the show falters. Perhaps it would only be palliative at this point, but if his upstage flats were pushed downstage six feet, the show would benefit greatly. First off, the text is tied up in the financial woes of the main characters, yet the stakes seem non-existent. Why should I worry that you cannot pay rent when you are living in a sumptuously expansive apartment? Can't you downsize to a blackbox set? The actors uniformly seem to be straining themselves to be heard across his open expanses of space, and the whole thing seems very chic, and very west coast-- a far cry from Harlem in any era. Tensions fall and punchlines are lost as every entrance is drawn out ten-fold. The runtime could be reduced at least by a quarter if we didn't have to wait for every actor to walk forty feet before they've even entered the scene. So little happens in this play that it seems to be begging for intimacy, and the design of this set fails to even suggest that. Despite the vastness of the stage, 75% of the action plays in a small pool of light downstage right. If you already have tickets to see this show, see if you can be seated in the first five rows of the theatre, house left. Otherwise, this is one to skip.

There is little wit in the script. Quips- even those by a character who describes himself as a "notorious homosexual"- are unoriginal and fail to procure much laughter. Perhaps a lack of laughter is a good thing, as it was hard enough to hear what the actors were saying as it was. None of them seems to know the play well enough to land the His Girl Friday pacing the author seems to be after, and somehow every delivery seems like garbled shouting. Angel is a fun protagonist, but Nija Okoro's performance doesn't hit hard enough in any direction to land amidst the void left about her by the rest of the team.

Elizabeth Harper's lighting design, which transforms a painted drop to show us hazy mornings and chilled, foggy evenings is technically beautiful, yet somehow contributes to the further dwarfing and burying of the play at hand and even further cements us in a west coast mise en scène.

The script needs a drastic overhaul. It tries to tackle so much, yet comes up with so little heart that it is hard to see how it has survived past a staged reading. A few well-timed jokes could go a long way, but even then, there is only enough plot and characterization to fill 90 minutes, and a belabored 2 and a half hours is simply never going to be needed for what little story exists here.

Blues for an Alabama Sky runs through May 8, 2022 at the Mark Taper Forum. More information here.