a whirlwind of jazz age joy and sorrow
In the scorching summer of 1930, jazz drifts through the grimy windows of a Harlem apartment building. There, the tenants dream of better things, while erasing their economic misfortunes. It was there and when Pearl Cleage set up her 1995 play Blues for an Alabama Sky, which was brought back to sordid and glorious life in this eye-opening revival at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre.
Samira Wiley (The Handmaid’s Tale, Orange is the New Black) leads a perfect cast of five for her London stage debut. She shares her apartment with Guy (the extremely agile Giles Terera from Hamilton), who manages to get his sodden frame back the night they both just got kicked out of the Cotton Club – where Angel was a backup dancer, Guy a costume designer. . The Italian mobster Angel is dating also just got married.
None of this is stopping the ever-bubbly Guy from cracking French champagne — more and more. Terera is beautifully funny in the role – just wait for her reaction to a new dress given to Angel by Leland, a gracious Southern widower (Osy Ikhile) who sets out to reach for her hand.
Meanwhile, Cleage’s characters name popular Harlem Renaissance celebrities – Guy posts dresses in Paris for his idol Josephine Baker, and poet Langston Hughes is their friend on the local scene. Several of the latter’s poems (“Hold on to dreams…”) are here set to music by Benjamin Kwasi Burrell, which the actors sing while looking towards the horizon. It’s one of the most expressive touches in Lynette Linton’s evocatively designed production, with Frankie Bradshaw’s cascading set using a revolution for emphasis and pushing the fire escape to the rafters.
Flattered by Leland’s attentions, Angel faces a harrowing dilemma – settle down as that kind of church bride, or continue with all her little endeavors and efforts. Next door lives Delia (Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo), a wise sweetheart who is involved in the controversial opening birth control clinics, and resists the advances of suave doctor Sam (Sule Rimi) out of self-preservation.
Perhaps Leland’s horror at widespread abortion practices and the shock of finding out Guy’s homosexuality, jointly landing in a scene, sound louder than they might. But it’s a remarkably dynamic piece, retaining a boisterous flair even when Miller-esque tragedy turns around the corner. Getting whoops of you-go-girl glee from a press night audience minutes before gasps of inevitable horror is all this vital rediscovery deserves.
Until November 5. Tickets: 020 3989 5455; nationaltheatre.org.uk