By Suzi Brozman / sbrozman@atljewishtimes.com

Crystal Fox, once the understudy, stars in "Blues for an Alabama Sky" at the Alliance. (photo by Jeff Roffman)

Crystal Fox, once the understudy, stars in “Blues for an Alabama Sky” at the Alliance. (photo by Jeff Roffman)

Pearl Cleage’s play “Blues for an Alabama Sky” finished its run at the Alliance Theatre on May 10.

No big news there. Cleage is an Atlanta theater staple. But this wasn’t the play’s first opening here. It premiered 20 years ago, downstairs on the Hertz Stage, commissioned by Atlanta theater legend Kenny Leon.

So popular was the show that it has been produced somewhere every year since, including one run with Phylicia Rashad (Claire Huxtable on “The Cosby Show”). Rashad’s understudy was Crystal Fox, who this time around portrays Angel.

Two major themes of the play could have been crafted last week, not 20 years ago. One is the black-white conflict reflected in the deep distrust of white motives in the black community, portrayed here in the idea of family planning.

Did whites want to commit genocide by limiting the size of black families? Did blacks want to take responsibility for their own lives? As one character puts it, “Should a woman have to make a baby every time she makes love?”

With one character a family planner influenced by Margaret Sanger and another a doctor who exults with the birth of every baby, that complex question receives its fair share of debate. I couldn’t watch the play without brushing away thoughts of today, of the rioting in the streets, of the poverty and rage, and wondering where it went wrong. Haven’t we learned anything?

The other topic is homosexuality. With today’s debates about same-sex marriage and the forthcoming Supreme Court ruling, comparisons are inevitable. We shouldn’t be surprised that any segment of society, especially one with a rich history of church involvement, has mixed feelings and prejudices.

How did Cleage know this subject matter would resonate with today’s audiences? How does a talented playwright ever know?

I can’t answer that, but I can tell you that the Alliance, under the directorship of Susan Booth, has given new life to the Harlem of the 1930s. From the costumes to the words, the music and the scenery, it all felt true to life.

It helped that the actors played their parts admirably and that the singing voices were superb. Keith Randolph Smith’s Sam was believable, admirable and sympathetic. Tyrone Mitchell Henderson’s Guy was gay and flamboyant, but not swishy or pathetic; even his belief in Josephine Baker and Paris was justified.

If you’ve never done it, contact Emory’s Center for Ethics, which has formed an alliance with the Alliance. Before selected plays, the center does an evening of snippets of acting combined with a discussion of the ethical ideas confronted in the play, a real help.