Blues for an Alabama Sky review – Harlem renaissance drama is a tale for our times

‘You’re a genius with a dream, and I’m just a coloured girl out of a job,” complains Angel to her gay best friend, Guy, with whom she shares an apartment in a big old house that is no match for a Harlem heatwave. Angel is a showgirl who has lost her livelihood for bawling out her gangster boyfriend from the stage. Guy is a costumier who trundles away on his sewing-machine running up glamorous gowns for Josephine Baker in the certainty that the singer will one day send for him from Paris.

Across the landing lives godly Delia, who harbours a different sort of dream: of bringing birth control to a neighbourhood impoverished by the Great Depression, with the help of kindly Sam, a bachelor doctor worn out by delivering premature babies to exhausted women. Sam, meanwhile, dreams of Delia.

These are the dying days of the Harlem renaissance. Off stage, Marcus Garvey is raising a fist for African consciousness, while Langston Hughes drops in to patronise the party scene, but the focus of Pearl Cleage’s play is trained squarely on this house, in an all-black neighbourhood, and the mornings after the roisterous nights before. As soon as the lights come up on Frankie Bradshaw’s fabulously cluttered set, with its staircases and doorways bustling with neighbourliness, you just know that it’s going to be fully and richly inhabited.

Cleage isn’t afraid to wear her theatre geekery on her sleeve, stuffing an old-fashioned melodrama with sly winks to Ibsen and Tennessee Williams, but the issues she addresses are freshly resonant in a new depression rife with social conservatism. When a gentleman caller Leland produces a gun in the first act, it is certain to end up firing a bullet not just through flesh but through decency and kindness and social idealism. But there’s such fun, while it lasts, in Lynette Linton’s beautifully cast, restrainedly musical production, which holds you both transfixed by the social shenanigans within the house while yearning for more of the dangerous glamour outside the window.

Samira Wiley and Giles Terera are fabulously matched as a waiflike singer with an astonishing bluesy voice and a larger-than-life dandy whose horror at bad couture provides a rich seam of frock jokes. Initially, these are hilariously trained on the dowdy suits of Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo’s sweetly frumpy Delia, but they darken as Guy returns in outfits bloodied from nights on the town, and the limitations of Angel’s Alabama suitor (a sturdily unhistrionic Osy Ikhile) reveal themselves through his stifling sartorial choices for her.

However exuberantly animated, the house’s three residents are stock characters. The man who gives the group both its cohesion and complexity is the free-ranging doctor, Sam, who parties by night and works by day, dozing off over the earnest tracts of the woman he loves before popping next door for a glass of champagne.

Played with a rangy charm by Sule Rimi, he holds the centre, reflecting the vivacity of his circle back on them, while brewing an ominous sense of tolerance and decency under pressure – not from gangsters or booze but from narrow-mindedness. When the reckoning comes, Cleage argues, it will not be due to revolution, crime or debauchery, but the encouragement of bigotry in the man on the street. A message for our times.