Phylicia Rashad to direct Pearl Cleage’s ‘Blues for an Alabama Sky’

Rashad starred in the 1996 premiere of Cleage's play, which explores migration, sexuality and struggle in Great Depression-era Harlem.

Fresh off of her Broadway run in Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew, Phylicia Rashad is having a full-circle moment. The veteran actress, director, and educator is set to direct a new production of acclaimed playwright Pearl Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, opening April 6.

Photo: Getty Images

Rashad knows Cleage’s 27-year-old play better than most, having starred as its lead character, Cotton Club performer “Angel,” in its 1996 world premiere at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta. Set in 1930, the play follows the connections and crises of a group of neighbors in Harlem, as dreams are both fulfilled and deferred.

As reported by Theatermania, actress Nija Okoro will take on the role of Angel as Rashad takes the helm for this revival. Other actors in the five-person cast are Greg Alverez Reid as Angel’s best friend, costume designer “Guy Jacobs”; Dennis Pearson as tortured Alabama transplant “Leland Cunningham”; Joe Holt as charismatic doctor “Sam Thompson”; and Kim Steele as social worker “Delia Patterson,” all of whom were cast by Kim Coleman, CSA. A synopsis of the plot is as follows:

In Blues for an Alabama Sky, Angel is a free-spirited Cotton Club singer who’s out of luck but never out of dreams. Guy is a costume designer waiting for Josephine Baker to invite him to join her in Paris. Delia, a young activist, is trying to give the women of Harlem a choice about their future. Sam, a prominent physician, is either delivering babies or out at the club letting the good times roll. And Leland, who recently arrived in Harlem from Alabama, is haunted by the wide-open skies and lost love he left behind. The lives and dreams of these men and women converge with passion and politics as the art and celebration of the Harlem Renaissance give way to the harsh realities of the Great Depression.

Credit: Theatermania

While Rashad is best known for her long-running and much-beloved role as Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show, her stage career is equally impressive, if not more so. Her credits include a run in the original Broadway cast of Dreamgirls, where she was Sheryl Lee Ralph’s understudy for lead “Deena Jones,” several Tony Award nominations, and a win for her role in the 2004 revival of Raisin in the Sun, becoming the first Black actress to win the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play.

Blues for an Alabama Sky is not only Rashad’s most recent of several directorial credits but her third stage production since being named dean of Howard University’s Chadwick A. Boseman College of Fine Arts in May 2021. At the time, both the university and Rashad maintained she’d continue to do outside projects, but her tenure was fraught with controversy almost immediately as she publicly celebrated the unexpected release of former employer and co-star Bill Cosby from prison on a legal technicality, for which she later apologized.

Just over six months later, Rashad again drew criticism for comments deemed “insensitive” amid internal (and ongoing) conflicts between Howard University students and administration. Coincidentally, Rashad’s contemporary and one-time classmate Cleage is an alumnus of both Howard and Spelman College, where she ultimately earned her bachelor’s degree in drama. She would later return to Spelman as a Cosby Endowed Chair professor and subsequent Playwright in Residence in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

In addition to Rashad, Theatermania reports the creative team for this revival of Blues for an Alabama Sky includes scenic designer John Iacovelli, costume, wig and hair designer Wendell C. Carmichael, lighting designer Elizabeth Harper, and sound designer Jeff Gardner. Original music for the production has been composed by Dontae Winslow, while the production’s stage manager is Michelle Blair. The Mark Taper Forum has recently played host to a regional production of the controversial and record Tony-nominated Slave Play and will produce the LeBron James-inspired King James later this season. Tickets for Blues for an Alabama Sky, directed by Phylicia Rashad, are available for presale now.

Maiysha Kai is Lifestyle Editor of theGrio, covering all things Black and beautiful. Her work is informed by two decades’ experience in fashion and entertainment, a love of great books and aesthetics, and the indomitable brilliance of Black culture. She is also a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter and editor of the YA anthology Body (Words of Change series).

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