Mark Taper Forum Celebrates Opening of “Blues for an Alabama Sky”
On April 13th, the legendary Phylicia Rashad and her associates gathered at the Mark Taper Forum to celebrate opening night of “Blues For An Alabama Sky”. Rashad, who is Center Theatre Group’s Associate Artist, directed this fearlessly bold, intoxicatingly seductive, and beautiful contemporary play.
Written by Pearl Cleage in the 1990s, “Blues for an Alabama Sky” is a story told so ahead of its time, that it’s right on time. Set during the legendary creative euphoria of the Harlem Renaissance, each character must survive the harsh realities of the Great Depression.
As the Blues get bluer, and the gin runs dry, Angel, a free-spirited Cotton Club singer has nowhere left to go after recently getting fired from her job. Guy, her best friend, is an extravagant costume designer with hopes to dress Josephine Baker in Paris. Leland, a handsome southerner, claims that he can give her the life she wants, but the saxophonist’s dreams of Harlem rarely end as smoothly as they start. Delia, a young activist, wants to give the women of Harlem a choice about their future, and Sam, a prominent physician, can’t decide between committing to a career of delivering babies or letting the good times roll at the club.
More than 25 years ago, Rashad originated the role of Angel in the world premiere of “Blues for an Alabama Sky” in 1995 at Atlanta’s Alliance Theater. Returning as director of this timeless piece, she leads a cast that features Joe Holt, Nija Okoro, Dennis Pearson, Greg Alverez Reid, and Kim Steele.
The Los Angeles Sentinel got to speak with Nija Okoro, who plays the character of Rashad’s Angel in “Blues”. The play follows Angel, Guy, and their group of friends as they journey together in pursuit of their dreams, highlighting topics such as trauma, poverty, homophobia, and disharmony in the streets.
“Angel has a lot of secrets, and she’s a bit of a mystery,” said Okoro. “She carries a lot of stuff with her.”
Within in the play, Angel is a very hurt person who has suffered a lot of trauma throughout her life. However, her hardships only make her a survivor. Okoro stated that “her main goal in life is to survive…she just wants to make it.”
Preparing for this role, while fun, was not easy for the actress. “It was hard to understand why she [Angel] does the things she does. I think people act out of circumstances, so I had to take the time to really figure her out.”
Okoro, who is an alumna of the Julliard School, describes her character as a “light” within the play.
“She’s vibrant, she’s charismatic, she has so much going for her, but the world has beat her up. I think she acts out of her wounds.”
This was something Okoro was able to connect with her character through. “We share a bond of PTSD and trauma,” she told LAS. “I connect with her fight and will to survive. We also connect with our dreams, but I think [Angel] doesn’t always allow herself to have them.”
Okoro is not like Angel in her actions, however, but “I understand her deep hurt and the place she comes from.”
With the play touching base on activism and young people finding their way, Okoro believes that “Blues” has many messages that the audience will take with them when they leave the theater seats. She, personally, came to understand more “the importance of following your dream and to taking what is inherently yours.”
“We often don’t know what motivates our life, and sometimes it’s our wounds. It’s a shot in the dark if we succeed or not, but we have to try. So, I hope people take with them that there’s hope in our dreams, and that they can come true. But also, I hope people see there’s hope in our people, and that Black women have been through a lot, and we have suffered. But we’re incredibly strong and can do anything.”
What’s beautiful about this story is that it contains five fully developed characters, giving anyone who sees the play to connect on multiple different levels. “Blues” was a play originated ahead of its time, and Okoro believes that “not much has changed…I’m always intrigued to see what people connect with because we’re still dealing with a lot of the same issues, today.”
Rashad and Okoro have worked together a number of times. “About four,” the actress told LAS. “I love working with that woman. She [Rashad] is regal, curious, and funny. She creates a safe space for us to really dig deep, and demands we show the truth in our work. It’s fun working with her because I know she’ll never let us fall.”
Okoro also mentioned that playing the role of Angel is “a gift of a role.”
“I love playing her. I find out more to love about her every day.”
Tickets for “Blues for an Alabama Sky” are currently on sale at Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum and start at $30. They are available through CenterTheatreGroup.org, Audience Services at (213)628-2772 or in person at the Center Theatre Group Box Office (135 N. Grand Ave in Downtown L.A. 90012).