Blues for an Alabama Sky By Pearl Cleage Directed by Walter Dallas; African Continuum Theatre Company at Atlas Performing Arts Center to May 8 A boisterous Harlem Renaissance potboiler

A playwright who sets her hard-drinking leading lady to repeatedly bellowing “I can’t believe it” at the outset of a drama might be thought of as issuing a challenge to theater companies and audiences alike. The bar is raised especially high when said drama is set in the waning days of the Harlem Renaissance, among characters who careen from Langston Hughes’ midnight soirees to church services presided over by Adam Clayton Powell to meetings with birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger. So credit director Walter Dallas and the folks at African Continuum Theatre Company with keeping Pearl Cleage’s boisterous potboiler Blues for an Alabama Sky more persuasive than it has any right to be for much of its not inconsiderable length.

The melodrama gets pretty thick toward the end—gangster moll meets Alabama lad-with-gun at the height of the Great Depression; what could go wrong?—but the setup is certainly engaging. As the lights come up on designer Timothy Jones’ credibly down-at-heels-but-homey rooming house, crooner/goodtime gal Angel (Maryam Fatima Foye) and her flamboyant gay roommate Guy (Joshua D. Robinson) are returning from drowning their sorrows over the loss of their rent-paying nightclub jobs, when they stumble upon a downright courtly young southerner named Leland (Gary-Kayi Fletcher). This softspoken, handsome lug will turn out to be not quite the savior Angel’s looking for, but for the time being, she figures he’ll do.

Guy, meanwhile, peppers singer Josephine Baker with telegrams (he has her photo on his wall as inspiration for his costume sketches), confident that once she’s seen his work, she’ll have no choice but to ask him to join her Paris entourage. And across the hall, demure Delia (Sasha Lightbourne) is scheming to get Powell’s Abyssinian Church-goers to join her birth control crusade—at least when she’s not looking shyly at her shoes because gregarious Doctor Sam (Keith E. Irby) has popped by with a broad smile and some bootleg booze.

Dreams, in short, are not in short supply. Nor are the sort of era-bridging social issues—gay-bashing, abortion, women’s rights—that will end up pushing the evening toward both soap opera and soapbox. Cleage manages to be generous even to characters whose positions on those issues she presumably finds appalling. And the performances, particularly those of the three principals, go a long way to delaying the inevitable moment at which narrative credibility gets seriously strained.

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