Stage star Kimberly Marable’s biggest Broadway roles were year-long performances in Hadestown and The Lion King, blockbuster shows either endorsed by Twin Cities producers or first bowed out in Minnesota.
Last year Marable played Persephone at the Orpheum on Hadestown’s national tour. For the previous ten years, she lit the same stage on The Book of Mormon tours.
But she departs from the sizzling world of song and dance of Broadway musicals for her Guthrie Theater debut. The Pearl Cleage drama Blues for an Alabama Sky, which premieres Friday in Minneapolis, stars Marable Angel Allen, the Cotton Club’s backing singer at the end of the Harlem Renaissance.
She’s not nearly as desperate as Angel. Still, Marable is enjoying the change, especially as Angel is hungry for success in a play as ambitious as any Broadway production.
“There’s a connection with these characters because they’re trying to rebuild their lives after a heady time,” Marable said. “We’ve also been in isolation and we’re getting out of there. How do we hold onto each other and our dreams?”
Bustle in Harlem
A five-digit work written in 1995, “Blues” is set in a busy Harlem apartment building in 1930. The occupants of two apartments facing each other interact as if it were just one big house and they were all one family. In addition to Angel, 34, the characters include Guy Jacobs, 30, an openly gay Cotton Club costume designer; Delia Patterson, family planning clinic social worker, 25; doctor Sam Thomas, 40; and Leland Cunningham, 28, recently arrived from Alabama.
Director Nicole Watson emphasizes that while the drama is set against the backdrop of history, including the great migration, these characters are highly contemporary. In addition, the play should not have the expectations of “a sepia-colored documentary by Ken Burns”.
“I don’t want all plays that have a time period to feel like historical documents or museum pieces,” Watson said. “Sometimes we have to let it all explode.”
Watson’s approach to the script, while not experimental, abstracts some of the design elements for a more poetic take on “blues.”
“The flats are there, but not in a realistic way,” Watson said. “It’s a more open gesture.”
Watson’s explosive creativity is one of the reasons Guthrie director Joseph Haj hired the Yale-educated Associate Artistic Director at Princeton’s McCarter Theater to direct Blues.
The two first worked together a decade ago when Haj directed two plays with Dominique Serrand in alternating repertoire at PlayMakers Rep. Watson served as Haj’s assistant director.
“Nicole is a great director and I admire her talent,” Haj said, adding that Watson brings a broad knowledge of the world and theater to this work.
Playwright Cleage, who still lives in Atlanta, is suddenly being produced on major stages across the country. This is because other black playwrights, including Adrienne Kennedy, are also getting more attention on Broadway for their “Murders in the State of Ohio” starring Audra McDonald.
“It’s about time,” said Watson. “The country – our audience – had to catch up on stories that centered on black women, especially this amazing Ms. Angel.”
Angel is the center of a found family, and like all families, they fight. But that’s not a sign of hostility, but of caring, Watson said. “Do we have the capacity to change, or are we all stuck in our own habits and cycles?”
Faye Price, the dramaturge of “Blues”, sees the piece in a historical context. Cleage’s work is a counterpart to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.
“Both wrestle with the idea of how to make our dreams come true,” Price said.
When Haj thinks of “Blues”, another play comes to mind: Chekhov’s “Three Sisters”. Like those characters in Russia, “American ones aspire to a full and rich life,” Haj said.
In her notes for the drama, Cleage wrote that for most people, as depression begins to bite, depression goes awry, “Far from Harlem, African American extraordinary Josephine Baker sips champagne in her dressing room at the Folies Bergère and laughs like a free woman .”
“She’s living her best life,” said director Watson, noting that Baker is a beacon, especially for generations of black Americans. “Someone else has to come through and laugh like a free woman.”
‘Blues for an Alabama sky‘
WHO: By Pearl Cleage. Directed by Nicole Watson.
If: 7:30pm Tue-Sat, 1pm Sun. Ends 12 Mar.
Where: Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St., Mpls.
tickets: $31-$80. 612-377-2224 or guthrietheater.org.