Review: ‘Blues for an Alabama Sky’
Plowshares excels with Michigan premiere of Pearl Cleage drama
Yes, there’s homosexuality in the black community – and character sashays into the hearts of theatergoers
The migration of black Americans from the rural south to the urban north beginning around 1919 gave rise to communities in which African American culture was redefined and celebrated. The center of the transformation was Harlem, New York, where such luminaries as Louis Armstrong, Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes flourished.
But the Great Depression set in, and the Harlem Renaissance – like American itself – fell temporarily on hard times.
In “Blues for an Alabama Sky,” playwright Pearl Cleage colorfully recreates the struggles experienced by the black artists, writers, musicians and activists who lived in Harlem in 1930. It’s a story of dreams vs. reality and choices vs. destiny, and she tells it through carefully constructed dialogue and razor-sharp wit.
Yet lurking beneath its powerful storytelling is a compelling examination of such weighty issues as birth control and abortion, sexual freedom and responsibility, religion and homosexuality. To her credit, there are no moral judgments in Cleage’s writing; rather, her in-your-face approach simply raises questions for the rest us to wrestle with!
Each fully-realized character in Cleage’s drama has a dream: Guy, who lives his life as an out-and-proud homosexual at a time when it was not safe to do so, is a struggling costume designer waiting for his first big break – a job in Paris creating outfits for songstress Josephine Baker; Delia, his next door neighbor, wants to help black families by opening a birth control clinic in Harlem; Sam, their jazz-loving friend, desires to use his skills as a doctor to bring healthy newborns into the world; Leland, a recent transplant from Alabama, is looking to find a good Christian woman to be his wife and to bear his sons; and the newly unemployed Angel, a back-up singer at the Cotton Club whose mobster boyfriend just dumped her, simply wants to survive – any way she can.
Dreams, of course, don’t always work out as planned; everyone does not live happily ever after.
There are two fundamental requirements that a production company must attain if it is to properly stage a production of “Blues for an Alabama Sky:” a deft director who understands pacing and character development, and a talented troupe of actors with the appropriate skills to bring their complex characters to life.
Plowshares Theatre receives high marks on both counts!
Director Janet Cleveland has taken Cleage’s script and imbued it with an infectious energy that engages her audience from start to finish. There are no dull moments here, only the expertly delivered high intensities and lows required of the script. (And with all the stair-climbing they do each performance, Cleveland’s actors will have the best cardiovascular systems and calf muscles in Metro Detroit by month end!)
Top notch performances are given by supporting actors Cameron Knight (Sam), whose deep, sexy voice and expressive eyes help define the inner turmoil his character faces; Stacey J. Weddle (Delia), whose character matures before our very eyes; and Mateen Stewart who is making an impressive Detroit debut as Leland.
Mayowa Lisa Reynolds is a knockout as Angel, a woman determined to look after her own best interests. It’s a meaty role, and Reynolds never misses a beat.
The hit of the evening, however, is Mark Young and his portrayal of Guy. Sure, the character has a sharp tongue and an attitude for days, but rather than play Guy as a stereotypically fey character, Young gives the costume designer heart. And the audience eats it up!
Review: ‘Menopause The Musical’
Celebrate the ‘Ch-Ch-Change’ at Gem Theatre
As a youngster, I vividly recall my mother going through what polite society then called “The Change.” Although I was too young to know exactly what that was, I do remember that – at the time – neither of us found that experience very funny.
Little did either of us suspect that – nearly forty years later – menopause would become the subject of a captivatingly humorous musical revue, or that women with various levels of estrogen in their systems would so warmly embrace a comedy that celebrates hot flashes, mood swings, nights sweats and memory loss.
(Of course, it was also inconceivable back then to predict that hit shows would some day bear names such as “The Vagina Monologues” and “Puppetry of the Penis!”)
With “Menopause The Musical,” now playing at Detroit’s Historic Gem Theatre, playwright and lyricist Jeanie Linders has taken the mystery and shame out of what once was a very private and scary experience shared by women throughout the ages. Instead, she celebrates menopause for what it really is: a rite of passage, so to speak, from one phase of a woman’s life to the next.
And it all begins at Bloomingdales in New York!
Four women with seemingly little in common with each other – Power Woman, Soap Star, Earth Woman and Iowa Housewife – are attending a sale at the famous department store when they nearly come to blows over a black lace bra. The disagreement quickly subsides, however, when they discover the one unifying factor that binds them together: They are all going through “The Change.”
So together, the four new best friends shop the day away, all the while relating their menopausal experiences through song and dance – the likes of which you won’t soon forget!
(They also clear up a little mystery that has bewildered men for generations: What REALLY goes on when pairs of women head to the powder room together?)
If the 28 songs that are dispersed throughout the 90-minute production sound familiar, they are! Linders has taken classic baby-boomer tunes and reconfigured them to fit the topic. A few are merely serviceable, but many are first-rate parodies; Most leave the audience members cheering and clapping through tears of laughter.
“Menopause The Musical’s” greatest asset, however, is its energetic cast. Director Kathryn Conte has assembled four of Metro Detroit’s most vivacious actresses for this ensemble piece. Together, Rhonda Freya-English (Power Woman), Kimberly Vanbiesbrouck (Soap Star), Judy Dery (Earth Mother) and P.J. Jenkinson (Iowa Housewife) are dynamite, yet each has her own solo numbers in which to shine.
Especially notable is Freya-English’s rendition of “What’s Love Got To Do With It.”
And I’ll never enjoy “Good Vibrations” in quite the same way ever again!