KPBS AIRDATE: APRIL 7, 1999
It’s a great week for seeing how the other half lives. At the San Diego Rep, there’s a world premiere Latino play, “Marriage is Forever,” and the Globe’s got “Blues for an Alabama Sky.” One’s comic, the other’s very dramatic; both are about finding your way in a not-always welcoming land, making a new life, making peace with your past, making way for the future. Both are unique to a particular culture, but universal in their themes. Best of all, both are enormously entertaining and extremely well done.
“Blues,” with its sultry, evocative sound design, takes us back to the summer of 1930, Harlem, New York, at the end of the Harlem Renaissance, on the cusp of the Great Depression. We meet a delicious cast of characters: Delia, a no-nonsense social worker, trying to set up a family planning clinic in a place where the birth rate is soaring, even as jobs, incomes and hopes are declining. And there’s Sam, the doctor who works too hard and maybe plays a little too hard, but still finds a soft spot for Delia. Guy is a flamboyant gay costume designer, who lives in his dreams of Paris and Josephine Baker. Then there’s Leland, a naïve Alabama Christian lost among the heathens and hedonists.
And they’re all smitten by Angel, an African American Sally Bowles, if you will — a beautiful, boozy, bluesy singer who’s just lost her job and her Italian mobster boyfriend. Their connections and disconnects are set against a vibrant backdrop of black issues and women’s issues and the people and politics of the day. As she’s shown in plays like “Flyin’ West,” and her first, best-selling novel, “What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day,” Pearl Cleage has a wonderful sense of character and language and feminist themes.
Director Seret Scott mines the play for all its riches, though the first act is slow in engaging us. But the second act is touching, disturbing, even thrilling at times. The cast is outstanding, attractive and irresistible. Cleage, ever the political writer, is not just talking about blacks in America – though there’s plenty of that – but also about issues that continue to haunt the headlines: homophobia, racism, sexism, classism, violence, poverty, religion, abortion, and a woman’s right to choose her own destiny. The issues are many but not overwhelming, and the characters are still what count. A gorgeously cluttered scenic design, lovely, detailed costumes, and a play that really touches your heart and your intellect. Just like life, there’s no neat, orderly ending here; the blues and the beat go on.
Down at the Rep, the program tells us that “Marriage is Forever” takes place “mostly” in the present and “mostly” in La Jolla, in the most breath-taking, post-modern apartment you’re likely to see on a stage. Kudos to designer Christopher Acebo for providing a striking backdrop to a funny but unfinished play. Well, there’s an ending, but this new work still needs some work. It’s a cute premise, concerning the imminent marriage of a professional, pretty upscale-for-students, assimilated Mexican-American couple (she older, he much younger – though that’s less an issue than the playwright tries to make of it). They’re set for a quickie marriage online, but just before the Net-minister gets to do his thing, a few relatives – both living and dead – make an appearance, to be part of the festivities, and to pull a few skeletons out of the family closets. There’s one too many of these loving couples, and the interrelationships among them are impossible to follow, but playwright Edit Villarreal makes everything clear by the end, while underscoring her messages with red pen and exclamation points. But director Sam Woodhouse keeps the action lively and the mood light, and, whether or not you understand the hilarious Spanish asides, you’ll have a great time. The chameleon-like cast is delectable. But Linda Castro, hilarious as the bruja grandma, really steals the show. It’s a delight to have her back on a San Diego stage, making even more than her usual magic. If Marriage were Forever, we wouldn’t need the Blues. Thank goodness right now, we’ve got both.
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.