Bright Blues

The Ensemble Theatre has gotten its '98'99 season off to a very steamy start with Blues for an Alabama Sky. Even with its rather inexplicable title, Pearl Cleage's script about five folks living in Harlem during the early 1930s is smart, sexy and -- best of all -- thought-provoking.

The play opens with Angel (BeBe Wilson) -- a just-been-fired, just-been-dumped nightclub singer -- staggering home in the evening, low-down skunk-drunk. Luckily, her best friend, Guy Jacobs (Michael Washington), and a mysterious, good-looking stranger with a sultry Southern accent provide her with all the manly support needed by a drunken woman who's in no condition to make her way home alone through the dark streets of Harlem.

Next day, reality hits. Angel's got to find a job, just like everybody else who's looking for work in Harlem. The heyday of the Renaissance is over, and most everybody's just barely scraping through the bad times. Across the hall lives Delia Patterson (Melita Hawkins), who's working with Margaret Sanger to open up a birth-control center in Harlem. By day, she's fighting the Garveyites, who claim she's instigating genocide; by night, she's trying to learn how to type with the help of a paper keyboard. And there's the good, forward-thinking doctor Sam Thomas (Lee Stansberry), who comes to call toting a miracle hangover cure as well as news of all the babies he's been delivering to out-of-work parents. Then there's Guy, who's forever care-taking the sultry, hip-swinging Angel; and when he's not nursing her, he's busy peddling his self-made dance-girl costumes to women in backrooms of divey clubs, even while he dreams of Paris and designing dresses for Josephine Baker. These are the fascinating folks who inhabit this lovely play.

But what's surprising about this show is that on one level, it's a captivating study of the disparate folks who occupied post-Renaissance Harlem, but it's also, in the end, a wonderfully convincing statement about the rights of women to control their own bodies, their own destinies. When the good Southern gentleman Leeland (Robert Marshall) returns with flowers, love and a good reliable job as well as all his right-wing traditional beliefs, the very unreliable though charismatic Angel has to choose between two lifestyles. She could pack up her singing dreams and become a comfortable-living wife and mother. Or she could choose to follow Guy to exotic Paris.

At the conclusion, we realize that even a woman as wanton and manipulative as Angel has a right to become whoever she will, even if lots of people suffer for her choices. It's a bold argument made convincing by the intelligence and nuances of the characters who occupy this play. These are big-hearted people who understand the world well enough to embrace a woman's wicked past, a man's homosexuality and the idea that birth control has a necessary role in a thriving community.

Even more convincing is the joyful, mature energy of the Ensemble's very gifted cast. Wilson has hit her stride in this play, creating a sexy, sensual Angel who is both bone-weary wise and willfully infantile. When Leeland -- played with a fearsome gravity by Marshall -- comes to call, Wilson's Angel slides her body right into him with all the clever knowing that only a woman with too much experience and too little love can have. Washington, as Guy, is subtle, warm and utterly charming. And when Stansberry's middle-aged, cynical and golden-hearted Sam falls for Hawkins's prim, smart Delia, a smoky kind of tender love unfolds on the stage.

All this is brought together with Eileen Morris's competent direction and James Thomas's terrific uptown New York City set.

Yet another vivacious and terrifically bold play opened this past weekend. Main Street Theater has mounted the strange and wonderfully polemical Stonewall Jackson's House at its Times Boulevard location. All the sacred cows are charred to an absolute crisp in this wickedly funny diatribe by Jonathan Reynolds.

On a bare stage, LaWanda Gayle, an African-American docent for the historical Stonewall Jackson house, leads two white couples through the museum. One constantly complaining couple just about drives LaWanda crazy. White-trash, big-haired Mag and husband Junior Nuckolls, who wears the Confederate flag on his gimme cap, know far more about Stonewall than LaWanda does, and they whine and berate her throughout the tour. After being lambasted one too many times, LaWanda -- who's been a crack head, a neglected child and every other inner-city stereotype -- has a revelation. She decides she wants to go home with the other white couple -- who are happy, rich and kind -- as their slave! LaWanda wants to be taken care of.

Cut to Scene Two. Five theater types sit discussing the merits of the play they've just seen. It's mean, racist, ugly, says the left-wing Gabriella Kohner. No, argues black author Tracy Munson, it's bold, and bound to shake up the place. What follows is a fascinating, smart argument about the possibilities and responsibilities of art. The "farty old lefty" Gabriella argues that the best kind of play posits the postmodern idea that "nothing is anybody's fault."

Tracy rails back at her, shouting that "victimization is always somewhat voluntary" and that there is "something inherently subservient in some people." Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, deconstruction, black leaders, critics, academia, playwrights and the art world in general are all eviscerated in this strange but admittedly exciting play. Some audience members shouted out "Yeah," clapping their hands as though they'd heard the word at last, and it was good.

Reynolds's arguments are not new, and they are hardly the last say on any of the questions he raises, but it isn't often that a play can be so openly polemical without being utterly boring. Certainly, some of the credit goes to the intelligent cast. Paul Menzel and Ellen Suits as Oz and Gabriella are thoroughly convincing as the arrogant but spineless artistic directors of the successful East Coast theater. Brooke Baumer as Claire, the visiting Brit theater owner, is perfectly sexy in that English I'm-so-cold-I-could-kill-you-in-bed sort of way. And Cheray Martin, as the young, passionate playwright Tracy, is sometimes thrilling to watch.

Playgoers may not agree with all that Reynolds wants to argue, but they know they've witnessed something powerful when it's over; most couples headed toward their cars in wildly heated debate.

Blues for an Alabama Sky runs through October 25 at the Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 520-0055. $1225.

Stonewall Jackson's House runs through November 1 at Main Street Theater, 2540 Times, 524-6706.


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