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.