National Theatre, Lyttelton – until 5 November 2022
Three in the morning and Angel the showgirl is roaring, glittering drunk, “If you cain’t be drunk in Harlem” she slurs furiously. Her friend Guy brought her home, and explains to the staid neighbour Delia that she was sacked for breaking outa line mid-show and cussing her gangster boyfriend. “He’s not a gangster he’s a BUSINESSMAN” roars Angel before collapsing, to be roused only briefly by the happy sound of a cork popping.
Pearl Cleage’s 1995 play creates a world, the world of dreamers in the fading Harlem renaissance, the Depression starting to bite. It’s domestic: Frankie Bradshaw’s fabulous set has two fire escapes, a hallway, steps, rooms high and low, balcony (where we glimpse other neighbours, sometimes with quiet harmonies sung). Outside the street is barred with lamplight.
Thirties Harlem is around us: hot jazz, cool kids, high spirits in a poor black population feeling its emancipated fragility alongside its power to perform and delight and build community: virtuous Delia next door is working on a maternity and women’s health clinic with devoted Dr Sam. Guy, a gloriously likeable Giles Terera, is gay in both senses and labours at his sewing machine between parties and rescues of Angel. He dreams his costumes will take him to Paris to work for Josephine Baker. Sam, too busy to have been in love before at 40, adores Delia, who is preoccupied with her pastor and her good work.
Dreams are hard to hold onto in this beleaguered time, but the little hefted community on the landings has to – their comradeship makes the lighter moments (the banter is excellent) feel like a version of Friends 70 years earlier and with real problems.
Into their world steps Leland from Alabama, Osy Ikhile playing it nicely flat at first as a “southern gentleman” in a tipped hat and smart suit, beguiled by Angel, able to take her out of all this if she’ll only give up her dreams of stardom. “What do you see in him?” asks Guy, baffled. “A rent check that doesn’t bounce” she replies. That never ends well.
They’re all glorious: Samira Wiley’s Angel a Harlem Traviata, a wayward and lively survivor, Guy’s wit and kindness and flouncing talent irresistible, Delia’s sweet frumpy frustration given heart and finally wit by Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo. Sam (Sule Rimi, debonair and kindly) is in his way the most fascinating character, one of the first black doctors in the city, overworking, dedicated, falling asleep in seconds because by night, after many emergency childbirths, he still won’t exchange “two hours of Fats Waller for two hours sleep”.
There are some wonderful jokes and touching moments: and telling ones too: when Leland brings a gift of a puritan black frock with a peter pan collar to Angel Guy doubletakes in horror: when Angel fixes it up with red bows Leland prefers it the old way. It gives every clue to the way the second half will intensify towards melodrama. The darkness these bright-hearted people have held off does not come from inimical white domination or even mere poverty.
Guy, returning bloodied one evening in his lilac satin proclaims with timeless fearlessness that he is determined to get out of Harlem but until he does, he will walk these streets and wear what he wants. Leland’s piety, as he looks between the city buildings for the stars he knew in Alabama, is not the pragmatic humane goodwill of Delia and Dr Sam. It’s a piety more coldly Southern, not tempered yet by the sophistication of the New York negro diaspora. So once he works out what it is about Guy, he invokes the hellfire and Abomination school of Southern homophobia.
He doesn’t really get what Angel is, either, for good or for ill: her line of escape opens and then closes, a timeless predicament triggering a tragedy. Not the tragedy I’d expected: which makes Lynette Linton’s arresting production even better value. It’s a loving, haunting play, done very beautifully
Nationaltheatre.org.uk. To 5 november