Tag Archives: Osy Ikhile

Blues for an Alabama Sky – National Theatre

A lack of choice connects female stories across the ages as women find themselves hemmed in by a lack of opportunity, access to education and agency to determine their own path. Some of those structures are patriarchal, others economic and social, but all of them restrict and confine, ensuring women become something other than themselves. Looking across cultural representations of women in the past 100 years it is possible to draw connections between characters such as Hester Collier in Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, Patrick Hamilton’s Jenny from Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, even up to Kyo Choi’s Kim Han-See in The Apology, all of whom are in pursuit of a fantasy life that will never be fulfilled. Pearl Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky, opening at the National Theatre this week, adds another unknowingly tragic heroine to that list, singer Angel who will grasp at an opportunity to get out of Harlem in 1930.

The concept of the American Dream and the extent to which it ever applied to women is something that Cleage explores in her play as every character pursues something beyond themselves, something better that will fundamentally alter the daily grind and transform them. Written in 1995, Cleage’s play draws heavily on the intimate boarding house and lodgings worlds of Rattigan and Hamilton in which urban, financially straightened lives are stacked together in densely packed neighbourhoods. And like these earlier works, Cleage emphasises the individual humanity and consequent value of the decent, hardworking community she depicts in a progressive piece that looks to personal attributes rather than limited religious and moral codes imposed by others to shape our responses to her cast.

Cleage sets the action primarily in a single two-room apartment over several weeks which becomes the focus of interaction between neighbours, lovers and friends navigating the next stage of their lives during the Great Depression. And Cleage quickly establishes a group of forward-looking dreamers, people seen as radical in quite different ways by their own community, sometimes dangerously so and not for the reasons we might expect. The context is constrictive and mundane – economic downturn, prohibition and high unemployment (symbolised by the lead characters losing their jobs at the start of the play) – but the lives within are nonetheless vibrant, full of possibility for bettering themselves and their local area while embracing the growing devotion to popular culture that provides a two folder escape – one in their imagination and one in reality.

Angel and her best friend Guy are characters whose dream life and real life could unite, bringing them both the recognition and glamour they crave. Guy’s work as a designer for cabaret and performance artists is sustained by the dream of working for Josephine Baker in Paris to whom he has an unexplained connection. But it drives his narrative, allowing him to indulge in the fantasy of working for her, which he cannot be swayed from, while practically working towards it with a job that puts him at the centre of a creative local scene of parties, drinking and affairs which simultaneously becomes a refuge from the daily grind. Angel meanwhile takes on work as a singer to support her dream of becoming a more famous singer. Yet her dream is compromised by an innate recognition that she will never achieve it, and instead pursues a course of survival that results in more questionable behaviour. Is Angel an inescapable and inevitable product of her gendered circumstances, Cleage askes, or does she actively sabotage herself to ensure those dreams always fail?

Throughout Blues for an Alabama Sky, Angel is a character with a notable duality. There is a deep vulnerability stemming from the knowledge that her body as much as her voice has sustained her, attracting a series of ‘gangsters’ and inappropriate men who only maintain a passing interest beyond the instant gratification of being her lover. And Angel actively seems to be looking for love, each encounter beginning with the hope that, like Sally Bowles, maybe this time it will work out. All of this pain makes Angel such a powerful blues singer, leaving the audience to hope that she will make it after all.

Like Rattigan’s Hester, Hamilton’s Jenny and indeed Isherwood’s Sally, Angel is under the illusion that she has choice, that she can direct and shape the future before her. Hester believes that if Freddy could just return her feelings with the same fervor, rendering all other difference between them immaterial, everything will be fine; Jenny is looking for the next man who can give her the material comforts she deserves and Sally too is looking for something real, that the next man will see her for the first time. Angel likewise falsely clings to the notion that traditional respectability – husband, family and home – will somehow snuff out all the other things she has had to do to achieve them, that if a man can love her enough, everything else will be insignificant, even her own desires. That each of these women is trapped into dependence on a man to rescue them is entirely a product of their society and the expectations placed on women to conform even when they are already living outside those structures. The tragedy comes from the failure of men to accept them and how decidedly that destroys their hopes.

A further tragedy in Angel’s character, and perhaps the most important moral point of Cleage’s work, is that Angel has gradations of selfishness that steal her happy ending, that she is prepared to stomp over anyone to get what she thinks she wants. In contrast to the behaviour of other characters, Angel uses people, lies and even betrays herself in order to become the potential wife that beau Leland may accept. And in the process she tears down her friend Guy in order to do it. These are survival techniques of a women with only herself to rely on, but in using her body to secure a different kind of status that she hopes will bring respectability and stability – regardless of his own questionable views – her body creates a response of its own, one which Angel coldly manages when a better opportunity presents itself.

Contrast this with Cleage’s parallel creation, Delia, Guy’s neighbour, who forms a counterpoint to the central pairing and in many ways is the pure heart of Blues for an Alabama Sky. Delia is a prototype for women’s rights, recognising the distressing lives of her community and prepared to face personal approbation and resistance by opening a Family Planning clinic. Though herself a virgin, as Guy discovers early on, Delia is an advocate of choice that will give women biological and economic freedom, and the play follows her progress through religious and medical objections, creating a character who is constructively forward-thinking and virtuous in her motives.

But Delia is given complexity through her growing attraction to local doctor Sam and her uncomplicated affection and acceptance of her neighbours. Non-judgmental, inclusive and encouraging, Delia experiences difficulty throughout the play quite differently to Angel and that treatment comes from character’s essential goodness and desire to contribute something beyond herself. The outcomes of the play, though tragic for the women in various ways, reflect a moral judgement by the writer who sets quite different paths for them both – Delia afforded true and reciprocated feeling that expands her emotional experience as a woman while Angel is left almost exactly where we found her; perhaps a little harder, more jaded but about to embark on the same destructive cycle.

The male characters by contrast are notably defined by their location, Guy and Sam products of Harlem while lover Leland bringing a darker cloud emanating from his Alabama moral and deeply Christian views that cause significant disruption within the group, shaping the plays central questions about appropriate ways to live. Men too are limited by their world and while it is perhaps too easy to suggest they suffer differently to women, Cleage looks at questions of masculinity and expectation in urban environments. That Guy represents a challenge to the traditional notions of manliness which Leland symbolises is one of Cleage’s most engaging themes as the two contend for a kind of primacy that manifests in a fight for Angel’s soul.

Guy is the kinder man which is reflected in Cleage’s perspective on female agency in the play, as he supports the development of his friend while Leland actively seeks to limit her. Sam likewise plays a role in facilitating Delia’s success, a meeting of minds that takes place in an enclosed but open-minded community where a modern morality and approach to sex, work and shared living finds itself hampered by traditional regulation and attitudes. Leland is the faultline along which these two worlds meet and collide, bringing dangerous but decisive consequences for the Harlem set.

The first half of the play is, by extension, very character and scenario focused, and while it establishes the narrative and motivational drivers, Cleage spends a long time setting-up the parameters in which the more traditional drama will then play out in the final third of the action, the pace of which Director Lynette Linton manages really well. Some may find it slow and ponderous while others will be fascinated by the ways in which Cleage constructs these lives and starts to draw the audience into their story, only realising in the final scenes how the long work of Act One created investment in the happiness and success of these neighbours, and how affectingly Cleage has created their circumstances and choices.

Samira Wiley captures all the contradictions in Angel’s character, the love of the party and that underlying fear that it is almost over for her that brings out a kind of desperation. Angel is deeply cynical, almost ground down in her belief that dreams don’t come true and the actor develops her pragmatic, sometimes cruel and headstrong side as she sets her sights on a more achievable outcome, all the while Wiley’s maintains Angel’s refusal to accept this is not what she truly wants. Ronke Adekoluejo’s Delia is a complete contrast with plenty of contradictions that help to make the character more rounded. Adekoluejo makes her shy and determined, innocent but knowledgeable about the medical needs of women, radical in her vision for the community and acceptance of others but looking for a traditional loving relationship, all of which Adekoluejo makes relatable and credible.

Giles Terera has a very busy rep season ahead, rehearsing the leading role in Othello opening in November as well as playing the flamboyant Guy here. Terera’s sensitive performance is very smart, taking a character who lives a bigger life than the others, filled with showbusiness parties and aspirations but still making him vulnerable, grounded and loyal to the people he cares about. There are some great scenes with Osy Ikhile’s Leland as the two men prowl around one another, subtly glaring as their very different outlooks clash, while Sule Rimi places Sam somewhere between the two, rational about the everyday needs of his patients but equally drawn to the possibility of finally meeting someone to share with it.

Staged on Frankie Bradshaw’s superb rotating house set, which echoes Tom Scutt’s excellent semi-translucent design for the 2016 production of The Deep Blue Sea, it creates a sense of lives packed in and overlapping. Blues for an Alabama Sky has much to say about the price of giving up on a dream and why it is often a woman who has to compromise. All of Angel’s choices are ultimately taken from her and while others may find a different future at the end of the play, like Hester, Jenny and Sally, Angel can never be anything else.

Blues for an Alabama Sky is at the National Theatre until 5 November with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Sweat – Donmar Warehouse

Sweat - Donmar Warehouse

The decline in manufacturing industries had a far-reaching and indelible effect on the UK and US throughout the later years of the twentieth-century, characterised by the growth of services and office work in place of skilled physical and manual labour integral to product development. But too often debates and discussions about this shift in output have been too theoretical, confined to economists, political commentators and historians eager to explain the rise and fall of Trade Unions, the challenges facing Britain and America on the world stage or the growing disenfranchisement of huge numbers of working-class voters in areas of significant industrial decline. What we so rarely see amidst the economic models and pie charts are the experiences of the people living through it, the complete powerlessness of workers whose jobs are relocated abroad, the factory that generations of their family have been loyal to turning against them, and the area’s absolute dependence on that one workplace.

Lynn Nottage’s Pullitzer Prize-winning play Sweat comes to London for the first time, examining the personal and local consequences of a firm’s strategic decision to change the way it operates and revealing the void it leaves behind. Based on a series of interviews with workers in Pennsylvania and book-ending the George W. Bush administration, Sweat is the story of a group of factory workers whose lives are shaped by a series of incendiary decisions taken by the plant owners with little regard for the individual consequences. Two families whose matriarchs and sons are good friends compete for a promotion that will take one of them off the factory floor and into the remote management sphere, but just as the dust is settling big changes put everyone at risk, pitting new supervisor Cynthia against best friend Tracey. Divided loyalties upset what no one recognised as a delicate balance and soon friendships are tested, bitterness and recrimination explode, and with racial tensions heightened, someone gets hurt.

Nottage’s stunning play sets-up a sense of inevitability from the start, a Greek tragedy waiting to happen in which a brief prologue reveals two young men – Chris and Jason – newly released from prison for a crime we know will eventually be unveiled. It is 2008 and already there is a hint of opportunities lost and hopelessness about what they now have to look forward to. Nottage then cuts back to 2000 and the story begins its semi-tragic course and, while we have some perspective on the ending, Nottage’s skill is to embed the audience so deeply in the town and the lives of its people, to make you care so much for their pride and essential innocence, that you almost forget what is coming, revelling in their warmth and humanity so that you long for a happier ending than any of them can ever have.

There are clear comparisons with Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge and, while the driving tragedy is more dispersed and external in Sweat, the idea of working communities threatened by outsiders, worries about immigration and the nature of unstoppable change are very similar. There is an interesting strand about loyalty and broken trust which mirrors Miller’s concern with honour and duty in defined communities, most obviously explored within the friendship group but also strongly referenced in the worker-employer relationship that breaks down so badly in the second half of the play.

We are told several times that the plant sustains whole families, employing husbands and wives as well as their children. Generations of townsfolk have worked there, it is intrinsically linked to the town’s professional and personal history, the source of their identity. Nottage also reveals how exclusive entrance to this club has been with workers only ever hired if recommended by an existing employee, and through this the scale of betrayal becomes clear as devoted locals discover their dedication is not reciprocated, that the factory management was only loyal as long as they were getting a good deal – when the economic circumstances change they manipulate this long-service to force a change in the business.

The somewhat poisonous effect of this workplace then begins to infect and toxify the other relationships in the play. From the start the audience know it is a dangerous place to work, the cause of Stan’s limp and the reason he now manages the bar in which much of the action takes place. A racial dimension slowly seeps in which we know from the prologue will lead to Jason pursing white supremacist activities off-stage but begins subtly with former friends turning against each other and looking for weapons. This is later compounded by the presence of Oscar, a barman of Colombian origin with no loyalty to the town who wants to work at the factory to earn more money and reinforcing local fears that cheaper workers will undercut them.

But Sweat is ultimately a female story and at its heart is the growing distance between friends Cynthia and Tracey who have shared more than 25-years of ups and downs working together on the factory floor. Through them, Nottage examines all kinds of labour politics, not least the struggle between tradition and aspiration at the individual and community level. Set around three birthdays held in the bar – two protagonists and their underwritten alcoholic friend Jessie – over time we see a happy harmonious group ripped apart by jealousy and competition, and despite their growing distance, the birthday is a useful device to credibly bring the characters together. The second birthday is incredibly awkward while the third descends into bitter argument as external pressures reshape how these women see each other.

When Cynthia wins the promotion, Nottage is able to tap into wider discussion about the fractious relationship between manual workers and administrative management, a class divide that explores the declining power of the Trade Unions to protect their members, as well as the individual cost to Cynthia of becoming ‘other’ – promotion from the floor is a badge of honour which becomes a millstone. The “us and them” rhetoric woven through the play (also present in the wider context about fears of immigration) is a familiar one seen in British cultural responses to strike action as diverse as Made in Dagenham, Billy Elliot and even Carry On at Your Convenience when Sid James’s foreman character insists he cannot join the company board because he’s “a worker”. What Nottage does so well is to make all of this painfully real for the characters, emphasising how desperately people want to better themselves but how easily they are accused of being class traitors when they do.

Clare Perkins is full of joy as the play opens, Cynthia is having a wonderful time in a job she loves, drinking with her friends, her life is settled and content. Or so it appears on the outside, somewhere Cynthia wants more and as she transitions to a management role Perkins shows something switches off inside her, an almost imperceptible shift to greater responsibility. Her complex homelife with a dope-addict husband offers a few wistful moments on the passing of the years, but Perkins’s Cynthia is a warm, caring woman who has done her best to raise her son well while refusing to be taken advantage of.

In the new role Perkins suggest both the pride it gives her to be chosen for management after more than 25-years of work, but also the sorrow as it costs her the stability of her friendships. You see how exasperated Cynthia becomes with Tracey’s refusal to be happy for her, and the confusion of their sudden enmity. Cynthia believes she is still the same person fighting for her community from the inside, but Perkins subtly suggests a change in her persona, the concealing of vital information until the last possible moment and a stronger hint of self-preservation than we saw earlier in the show. “Was it worth it” is the question that haunts her, but Nottage is too skilled a writer to reveal the answer, instead the inevitability of Sweat shows us that all paths ultimately lead to the same destination.

Martha Plimpton’s Tracey is more comfortable in herself as the play begins but reveals greater insecurities as the story unfolds. A widow thanks to the factory, Tracey is ballsy, stubborn and willing to say exactly what she thinks regardless of the cost, she is no one’s fool and hates the idea of being hoodwinked especially by her best friend. Plimpton also draws out Tracey’s greater love for heritage and foolish belief that her family’s decades of service will be rewarded.

When she loses out on the promotion, Plimpton reveals how thin the layer of decency has always been and Tracey descends into bitterness, finding reasons to blame her own lack of agency on Cynthia’s failure to manage and unveiling a surprising bigotry, a low-blow that feeds into the race and immigration subtheme that has much to say about modern political divisions that have subsequently shaped US and British government. Yet we retain a shred of feeling for both women, Nottage’s writing and these strong leading performances show cause and effect so clearly, helping the audience to understand how little either could do to prevent what happens to them.

There are meaningful performances of the secondary male characters including Osy Ikhile as Cynthia’s son Chris, a decent young man caught up in events that cost him the bright future he once had and dreams of escaping the town that no one else can. Patrick Gibson is a little too decent to entirely convince as Jason with some of the inflections and movements a touch over-studied, but he does exude a menace in the 2008 scenes which works much better. Stuart McQuarrie is both counsellor and friend as stalwart barman Stan with his own connection to the factory that ties his greater knowledge of the customers into the importance of the plant to the town, while Sebastian Viveros as the more mercenary outsider Oscar finds himself at the eye of a troubling storm.

Nottage’s world is richly detailed and full of pain, pain for the limited opportunities left by industrial decline, pain for the communities and individuals destroyed by firms who place profit above staff satisfaction, and pain for the crippling effect it has had right across the economic and political domain, creating rents in the social fabric that have turned people against one another. Sweat is a beautiful piece of writing about small-town American but it could just as easily have been set in the UK, the effects are the same and the life Nottage so vividly describes is as real today as it was in 2008. Our industrial past is pulling against some other kind of future, and there’s little any of us can really do to stop it.

Sweat is at the Donmar Warehouse until 26 January with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


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