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Set in ’30s, ‘Alabama Sky’ reflects today’s issues

February 1, 2019

Today’s social issues find a spotlight in this year’s Black History Month play at the Pearl Theater, even though “Blues for an Alabama Sky” was written in 1995 and takes place in 1930s Harlem.

The play by Pearl Cleage opened Jan. 26 and continues through Feb. 10 as the Pearl Theater’s annual Black History Month show.

Director Renee van Nifterik said although the play is set 90 years ago, it deals with such hot-button issues of today as abortion, wealth disparity and hate crimes.

Halfway through “Blues for an Alabama Sky,” the main character, Guy Jacobs, enters “disheveled,” bitter that a group of “young hoodlums” tried to assault him.

“You’re bleeding!” cries his best friend, Angel Allen.

“No, I’m not. But somebody is!” says Guy, as he wipes a small stain from his smoking jacket and reties his ascot. “If you ever see me in a fight with a bear, you help the bear.”

Guy is openly gay, but he refuses to modify his behavior in public, even though it makes him vulnerable to attacks by neighborhood thugs.

“We could all take a page from Guy’s book, and that is to not change to appease anyone and not to live in fear or hide who you are,” said van Nifterik, who is the Pearl’s artistic director.

“Be who you are and be bold!” she added. “Guy’s strength of character comes from being unapologetically who he is and knowing what he wants from life and having the guts to go for it.”

To one extent or another, the play’s other characters also display courage, or at least determination.

They include Delia Patterson, who campaigns to establish family planning clinics in Harlem; Sam Thomas, a boozing doctor at Harlem Hospital; and Leland Cunningham, a new arrival from a small town in Alabama. He is described as “a hard-working, God-fearing Christian” who is appalled at the libertine lifestyles he finds in Harlem.

The role of Angela Allen, who dates married Italian gangsters as she pursues a career as a blues singer, was originated by Houston native Phylicia Rashad when the play premiered at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Ga.

Jasmin Roland plays Angela at the Pearl, opposite Chad Promise as Guy, Caprice Carter as Delia, James West III as Sam and Eric Williams as Leland.

Promise is a former varsity basketball player at Baytown Lee High School, where he graduated in 2010.

“My freshman year, I took theater as an art credit, and I enjoyed it so much that I came back,” said Promise, 27, who cited Rosemary Calico-Hopson and Veronica Phillips as theater teachers who encouraged him.

At Pasadena’s San Jacinto College Central, where he earned an associate degree in theater and film, Promise played Munro Murgatroyd in “Dirty Work at the Crossroads.”

Other notable shows on his résumé include “The Full Monty,” “Hairspray,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Little Shop of Horrors,” “The Little Mermaid” and “Big Love.”

“Blues for an Alabama Sky” is Promise’s first role since earning a 2017 bachelor of arts degree in theater at West Texas A&M University in Canyon.

Van Nifterik said that “Blues for an Alabama Sky” is an important addition to the Pearl’s annual homage to black American history.

“We are excited to bring stories of the black experience to life, especially to honor Black History Month,” she said. “What I really like about this story is the relationships of these five people who are everyday workers and artists who are pursuing their dreams, just like we all do. And just like real life, we win some and lose some. I think most (members) of any racial/ethnic background will see themselves somewhere in one or more of the characters. This makes the story very relatable to a universal audience.”

Don Maines is a freelance writer who can be reached at donmaines@att.net

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