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A renaissance that's relevant today

Great story-telling and contemporary themes attract director to demanding play.

November 04, 2011|By Lynne Heffley
  • The cast of Kadeem Hardison, as Sam Thomas, Kevin T. Carroll, as Guy Jacobs, Robin Givens, as Angel Allen, Tessa Thompson, as Delia Patterson, and Robert Ray Manning, Jr., as Leland Cunningham, during a dress rehearsal for the play "Blues for an Alabama Sky" at the Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena on Sunday, October 30, 2011. (Tim Berger/Staff Photographer)
The cast of Kadeem Hardison, as Sam Thomas, Kevin T. Carroll,…

When the November slot opened up unexpectedly in the Pasadena Playhouse’s 2011-12 season, Artistic Director Sheldon Epps remembered a play on his “one of these days” list: Pearl Cleage’s “Blues for An Alabama Sky,” set in 1930, during the historic Harlem Renaissance period in New York.

Opening today, Cleage’s play explores the struggles of five characters as they pursue their varied dreams just as the Great Depression is casting a pall over this era of burgeoning creativity among African American artists, writers, poets and social activists.

Robin Givens, leading a cast of seasoned stage and screen actors, plays Angel, a blues singer from the South who can’t get a gig. Angel’s close friend Guy (Kevin T. Carroll) is an unemployed costume designer. Sam, played by Kadeem Hardison, is a Harlem Hospital doctor, and social worker Delia (Tessa Thompson), influenced by crusader Margaret Sanger, is trying to establish a local birth control clinic. Meanwhile, Tuskegee transplant Leland (Robert Ray Manning, Jr.) yearns for an idealized Angel.

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Epps said that he re-read “Blues” when Frank Tangredi’s drama, “Pastoral,” previously scheduled for the Playhouse, lost its star, Angela Bassett, to Broadway. Noting that the Playhouse had presented a 1999 production of an earlier Cleage work, “Flyin’ West,” about women in an all-black pioneer town, Epps was again impressed by “Pearl’s great story-telling ability and wonderful use of language and character.

“I was struck in particular by how relevant this play is,” he said, “and how so many themes in the play are very contemporary. It deals with issues that were true in that time period, and that are certainly true to what we see in the headlines every day: the economy, joblessness, right-to-life debates and gay-bashing.”

Finding the play’s emotional balance, however, was a challenge, Epps said. “This play is very funny and entertaining, but it is also emotionally demanding because there are serious issues being discussed. It calls for a great deal of passion and conviction from the acting company.”

Luckily, “we have a wonderful ensemble,” he said. “The characters in the play are drawn quite vividly by the writing, but they are all very well-cast, in that each of the actors is also a strong individual presence.”

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