For playwright Pearl Cleage and actor Crystal Fox, Blues for an Alabama Sky represents a delicious redo, some 20 years after each had her first go-round with the Harlem-set drama.
When Cleage learned that the Alliance Theatre wanted to mount a 20th- anniversary production of her five-character 1995 play, she was surprised that two decades had passed.
Blues, set at the beginning of the Great Depression, has been staged elsewhere every year since its Atlanta premiere, but Cleage hasn’t been involved. When she did revisit her script, she decided it “is still very much relevant to the times we live in.”
For the Alliance premiere in 1995, Phylicia Rashad played the leading role of Angel Allen, a down-on-her-luck nightclub singer. Kenny Leon directed here and in Boston, again with Rashad as Angel. A relatively unknown Atlanta actor named Crystal Fox, barely 30 and handpicked by Rashad, was the understudy.
“Phylicia knew [Fox] was too young for Angel,” Cleage recalls, but she said Crystal had all the right qualities for the role and would be able to play it later.
“Later” has arrived.
Fox and Cleage “were like kids jumping up and down” when offered the chance to revisit Blues, says Fox. “Pearl was so curious to know why the play meant so much to me. I’m just so excited to be able to do it with her. I feel that with her in the room [for part of the rehearsal process], anything I want to try, I can check in with the mother of this fine play and see if it will work.”
At the moment, Fox is earning widespread acclaim playing Hanna, the soulful but always worried and stressed-out maid on Tyler Perry’s soapy TV drama “The Haves and the Have Nots.” Tyler Perry Studios and the Alliance reportedly had to “move mountains” to free Fox for “Blues.”
“The chance to play Angel was too good to pass up,” Fox says. When asked about the one time she performed the role in, she recalls thinking, “Oh my God, what big shoes I have to try and fill” and how much she didn’t want to let Rashad, Cleage, Angel or herself down.
Angel is misguided and more than a little disappointed, deceptive and desperate. She has nothing in common with the no-nonsense Hanna that Fox plays on TV.
“They are polar opposites – at this moment in their lives,” Fox says. “That’s why I’m excited to play them both. I want audiences to know I’m more diverse than any one character, that I have more dimensions to explore.”
Angel has not yet “hit bottom enough to need to call on something or someone higher than herself,” Fox says. Hanna, in contrast, is full of regrets and has learned tough life lessons the hard way.
Angel may be at the center of Blues for an Alabama Sky, but Cleage gives ample weight to the journeys of the four other characters: Guy, an optimistic costume designer whom Cleage calls “an unapologetic gay man in an undeniably homophobic environment;” Delia, the neighbor who wants to start a family-planning clinic decades before it was acceptable; Sam, a Harlem doctor also ahead of his time; and Leland, a conservative Southerner, a newcomer who can hardly relate to the lives of the others.
Although not the play’s focus, Leland was Cleage’s inspiration for the play and its title.
She recalls clearly one winter night in 1994, when she and husband Zaron Burnett Jr. were driving back to Atlanta from Montgomery, where Alabama Shakespeare Festival was staging her Flyin’ West.
As they drove, Cleage noticed “the sort of sky you never see if you’re in a big city.” She stuck her head out the window for a better view and imagined what it might be like for someone who belonged to that sky to visit a place like New York City.
From there, the play took root.
This time, Alliance artistic director Susan V. Booth directs. Cleage calls Booth “a playwright’s director, because she so honors the script. She is thorough in her investigation of who these characters are and where they are in time and space. I cannot wait to see what she will do with this play.
“This is a wonderful thing for me to celebrate. It’s a full-circle kind of journey.”