‘Blues for an Alabama Sky’ Brings 1930s Harlem to Life at McCarter Theatre

With serious themes, a delightful cast and spot-on set design, "Blues for an Alabama Sky" is playing now in Princeton.

Crystal A. Dickinson and Maya Jackson share the stage in Blues for an Alabama Sky at the McCarter Theatre.
Crystal A. Dickinson and Maya Jackson share the stage in "Blues for an Alabama Sky" at the McCarter Theatre. Photo: Matt Pilsner

Both political and social, the themes that fuel Blues for an Alabama Sky, now playing at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, are as relevant today as they were in the play’s 1930 Harlem setting. Written by novelist/activist/playwright Pearl Cleage, the show, which explores racial and sexual discrimination, gender roles and how intolerance perpetuates gun violence, follows a tight-knit group of friends living in Harlem and the impact an outsider—a southerner—makes to the delicate balance of their lives.

The play stars Crystal Dickinson, a Seton Hall graduate who lives in West Orange, as Angel, a singer at the storied and segregated Cotton Club. After being dumped by her Mobster boyfriend—and then fired because of the scene she makes at the club during the breakup—Angel is desperate to find a man to take care of her. Consoling and willing to play the part of provider is gay costume designer Guy (played by Kevin R. Free, the artistic director of the Mile Square Theater in Hoboken). Guy is certain his dream of providing gowns for superstar Josephine Baker will come true and bring him the riches to provide for them.

Adding to the cast of characters is Delia (Maya Jackson), a shy yet feisty young woman who is serious about her work with Margaret Sanger to bring a birth control clinic to Harlem. Her love interest, Sam (Stephen Conrad Moore), a doctor at Harlem Hospital, represents the educational and economic promise of the north. And finally, there’s Leland (Brandon St. Clair), newly migrated from Alabama. This character displays none of the sophistication or open-mindedness of the now northerners and is hampered by his small-town puritanical values.

As director Nicole A. Watson points out, Blues enlivens details of Black American life in a way that only fiction can because of incomplete record-keeping about Black history. “What theater can do is restore their names. It can reinvent, reimagine and revive the lives that the historical record has chosen to omit.”

Playwright Cleage says the story came to her while gazing out a car window as she traveled through Alabama. Ultimately, the stage show provides an up-close snapshot of Black southerners who came north during the Great Migration—the period from 1910 to 1970 that saw the relocation of six million descendants of slaves to northern and western states for better social and economic conditions.

Blues for an Alabama Sky is 2 ½ hours long and runs through May 28. For more information visit mcarter.org.

No one knows New Jersey like we do. Sign up for one of our free newsletters here. Want a print magazine mailed to you? Purchase an issue from our online store.

Read more Arts & Entertainment articles.