Anyone who studies scenic design should hop over to Karamu House for a gander at Richard H. Morris Jr.'s stunning 1920 Harlem boarding-house set. With its rich burgundies and beiges, furniture that could have come out of a 1920s Sears-Roebuck catalog, and infinite attraction to period detail (even down to an authentic door transom, bohemian knick-knacks, and a carpet begging to be Charlestoned on), it's a set deserving of a happy home at the historical society. It also serves as proof positive that meretricious baubles can come in lovely packages.
Students of bad dramaturgy and direction will have an absolute field day at Blues for an Alabama Sky. Even with its gorgeous costumes and evocative lighting, it is a priceless classic of shoddy play-making. Flawless in its imperfections, airless as the Mummy's tomb, bloated, stilted, hollow, and silly, it is coated in cliches that flourish in much the same manner as the barnacles on a shipwreck.
According to the press kit, a handy tool for those just coming out of a coma and trying to figure out what happened: "Playwright Pearl Cleage offers compelling insight into personalities and prejudices." Translation: playwright offers old, refried Hollywood hash concerning a Dorothy Dandridge/Ava Gardner-type man-eating vamp who teams up with a flamboyant homosexual costume designer (see Kiss of the Spider Woman). Together, they suffer the torments of poverty, gunplay, etc. that only the good old Hayes (censorship) Code could bestow on their likes.
Back to that press release: "The action is set in a Harlem brownstone in 1930. Its five characters--a gay designer, a fading diva of the Cotton Club, a compassionate physician, an activist neighbor, and a straightlaced suitor--pursue their careers; a drama unfolds and finally erupts around issues of homophobia and birth control." Translation: social history as low-grade soap opera. Famous names, such as Langston Hughes and Josephine Baker, are dropped like hot potatoes. It's a vinyl variation on Chekhov's Three Sisters, with everyone unfulfilled and yearning to be somewhere else. Prognosis: First you yawn, then you doze, then you flee.
A potentially appealing cast is betrayed by this trite play and Lorna C. Hill, whose direction presses her hapless actors like butterflies under glass. She works from the school of significant silence: "Don't speak until you feel the line." Between pregnant pauses, the audience has time to read a newspaper, brew a cup of tea, or knit a sweater. Like those deprived of oxygen, they soon start to laugh at anything that will give them relief from unmitigated tedium, as when a grandfatherly actor drops the claim that he is forty.
The climax of the evening occurred in the audience, when a fascist house manager tried to confiscate a contraband bottle of Snapple from a theater connoisseur. This was the only genuine dramatic tension of the evening. It may all be likened to night duty at the House of Wax.
Blues for an Alabama Sky, through June 6 at Karamu House, 2355 East 89th Street, 216-795-7070.