(Director Jerrell L. Henderson)

By Jerome Langston

There is much to see inside the large MacArthur Center rehearsal space, for Virginia Stage Company’s latest production, the Pearl Cleage drama, Blues for an Alabama Sky. The magic of theater is blossoming, in a space that Maris tells me used to be a J.Crew store. Looking around, there are still remnants of old, abandoned retail — but it primarily just feels now, like a cool ass place to play. I’m interviewing the play’s director, Jerrell L. Henderson, who is new to VSC, as well as one of the show’s stars, James T. Lane, who dazzled as Nicely-Nicely Johnson in VSC’s production of Guys and Dolls, back in season 41. I tell James that I remember how awesome he was in the musical, playing a character who leads one of the biggest musical numbers in the show.

Blues for an Alabama Sky is wrapping up VSC’s landmark 45th season, with only the short run Lay It Down, The Everly Brothers music tribute show, to follow later in May. Season 46, whose shows feel like a creative pivot — has already been announced. One of the triumphs of season 45 was clearly the company’s excellent production of Fiddler on the Roof, which was reportedly one of VSC’s most successful shows, in its lengthy history. It was a pleasure interviewing actor/singer John Payonk, who was remarkable as Tevye, for the feature in Veer.

I ask Jerrell, who is a Philly native, if he’s directed the play before. “I was supposed to direct it, in ’08, but I didn’t… so I’ve been waiting over ten years,” he says. Despite their long day of rehearsing, both Jerrell and James appear full of energy. Perhaps it’s a Philly thing. I quickly discover that they attended the same high school, back in South Philly. Jerrell has long been passionate about black theatre, so Blues for an Alabama Sky has long been on his radar. I ask him to describe what the play is about.

“So in my mind, it has always been a love letter to the Harlem Renaissance, and Black people during the Harlem Renaissance. It takes place just as the Great Depression is taking off, in 1930,” says Jerrell. This play, and classic works by August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry, and George C. Wolfe, really speak to the Chicago based play director, who also works as an archivist and puppeteer. “Sometimes I find insight into my own life, and the choices that I make, based upon lines and character behavior in this play. That’s how deep it goes for me,” he says.

Blues had its premiere at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, in 1995. It has earned well-deserved raves for many of its regional productions, as well as for a 2022 West End production in London. Set in a 1930 Harlem apartment building, the play deftly explores the relationships of five striving Harlemites, who are facing a post Renaissance period, steeped in all the tragic outcomes of the Stock Market Crash of 1929. Angel and Guy are new roommates. He is a costume designer who is inspired by the great and fabulous, Josephine Baker, while she is down on her luck as a recently fired Cotton Club singer. In the same building, Sam is a hard-working, handsome doctor, who fancies Delia. And Leland’s arrival from the South, somewhat predictably — brings the real drama. The play tackles weighty subjects like poverty, homosexuality and homophobia, and abortion — but without the heavy-handedness of melodrama. The play retains a kind of joyful, optimistic center.

VSC’s cast features Tarina J. Bradshaw as Angel, Kendrix Brown as Leland, Rachel Fobbs as Delia, Gregory Warren, who starred in VSC’s well-received production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in season 44, plays Sam, and the aforementioned James T. Lane, plays Guy. I ask James if he identifies with his character. “I connected to Guy in a number of ways, but the fact that he’s an artist… He happens to be just working in a different medium with the costumes,” James says. “He’s got the talent and a dream… He’s got the tools! And he’s not afraid to use them.”

James had just wrapped a Harlem Renaissance period musical, After Midnight, so he’s been in the mindset of the Renaissance for some months now. He tells me that’s why he’s still sporting a considerable mustache. The relationship between Angel and Guy is a big part of the story, so I ask James to also describe their friendship. “You add in some elements of life. You add in love. You add in liquor. You add in opportunities and dreams…” the actor says. “I think Angel and I, we know each other, inside and out, and that’s the best thing. And it’s the worst thing,”

As the play opens in a couple of weeks, I ask Jerrell what has been gratifying so far, in directing the show. “The way that we’ve designed the show goes into collage, and a lot of the artwork that was happening in New York at that time,” says Jerrell. He also mentions how great it’s been working with James. “I’m not trying to pander. I’ve never gotten to work with James before. James and I go back.” They both also appreciate being able to support each other, especially as Black and Queer actors. “Our journeys have run, sometimes parallel to each other,” says the director.

Jarrell also believes that despite the play being set in 1930, the story and characters will resonate with VSC’s audiences. “The veil of history can feel really alienating, so that you don’t understand how you connect to the past,” he says. It excites him that “they may think about history differently, when they leave.”



Blues For An Alabama Sky 

April 17-May 5 

Virginia Stage Company 

Wells Theatre