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Release: June 17, 2002

(NOTE TO BROADCASTERS: Cleage is pronounced "kleeg.")

Iowa Summer Rep 2002 opens with Cleage's 'Blues for an Alabama Sky'

The Iowa Summer Rep 2002 festival of plays by Pearl Cleage will open Wednesday, June 26, with "Blues for an Alabama Sky" in the David Thayer Theatre of the University of Iowa Theatre Building. The UI Department of Theatre Arts' summer Actors' Equity company will perform this story of dreams held dear in the waning days of the Harlem Renaissance at 8 p.m. June 26-29; at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Sunday, June 30; at 8 p.m. July 2-3; at 6 p.m. July 4; and at 8 p.m. July 9, 16 and 17.

As the optimistic vitality of the Harlem Renaissance is displaced by the pessimism and privation of the Great Depression, Cleage's vivid characters treasure a variety of desires and dreams -- some practical, some unrealistic, some fanciful, and some that even threaten to come true in unexpected ways.

"Cleage knows how to create a laugh, and delicate romance," the critic of the Cincinnati Enquirer wrote, "and she knows how to drop a dramatic bomb at exactly the right moment." And a review in the Weekly Wire suggested, "Pearl Cleage's 'Blues For An Alabama Sky' is an artfully crafted, and wonderfully old-fashioned play that could have easily slipped from Chekhov's pen had Chekhov been a brother."

The story revolves around Angel Allen (Charmain L. Crook), a down-on-her-luck blues singer who, after losing her job at the Cotton Club and breaking up with her white gangster boyfriend, contemplates marriage to an unsophisticated man from the rural South (Douglas Howington).

Angel's supportive neighbors include a flamboyantly gay clothing designer (Geoffrey D. Williams) with dreams of designing for Josephine Baker in Paris, an earnest woman trying to open a birth control clinic (Amy Olson) and a fun-loving physician (Marvin L. Sims).

Williams, an Equity actor from Atlanta, has performed in numerous regional theatres, and his film and television credits include "I'll Fly Away," "In the Heat of the Night," "Black and White," "World Traveler," the HBO special "Boycott," and "Separate But Equal" with Sidney Poitier and Burt Lancaster.

Sims, Head of Performance at Virginia Commonwealth University, is the incoming president of the Black Theatre Network and president-elect of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education.

Since receiving his Master of Fine Arts degree from the UI and acting at Iowa City's Riverside Theater, Howington has moved to Los Angeles, where his first major motion picture will go into production this fall.

A graduate student in the Master of Fine Arts acting program, Crook has been seen in UI productions including "A Yellow Fever" and "Familiar" in the Iowa New Play Festival; and the University Theatres Mainstage shows "Wonderchild" and "Aloha Say the Pretty Girls."

Olson, an Iowa City native, can been seen in the hit motion picture "Legally Blonde." Her role in "Blues for an Alabama Sky" is her UI thesis work for the Master of Fine Arts degree.

"Blues for an Alabama Sky" is directed by UI Theatre Arts faculty member Tisch Jones, and features lighting by faculty member Bryon Winn, scenic design by William Lance, and costumes by Carol Colburn.

"Blues for an Alabama Sky" was premiered in 1996 by the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., with TV star Phylicia Rashad in the role of Angel Allen. The play has subsequently been staged by regional theaters throughout the country.

A review in Variety called the play "an engrossing story told with passion," and the critic of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel observed, "the play's astute depiction of that uncomfortable gray area where we sometimes find ourselves in life -- between right and wrong, between the pragmatic and the idealistic -- is what makes it special."

Cleage, who has been playwright in residence at Spelman College and at the Just US Theater Company in Atlanta, has written plays that have been produced professionally for more than 20 years. But she was boosted to a new level of public awareness when Oprah's Book Club recommended her novel "What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day" in 1997. Her most recent novel, "I Wish I Had a Red Dress," won the top fiction honor in the 2002 Literary Awards of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association, Inc.

The themes of Cleage's plays began to form early in her life, as the daughter of a minister and a school teacher. She recalled, "By the time I was eight or nine, I understood clearly that slavery and racism had created a complex set of circumstances that impacted daily on my life as an African-American. . . I also knew that as a person who had the advantage of growing up in a house where there were books, it was my responsibility once I achieved adulthood to work consciously to 'uplift the race,' or at least as much of it as I could, given limited resources, human frailty and the awesome implacability of the group itself."

Before dedicating her energies to writing, Cleage worked at a variety of jobs in the media, including host of a black-oriented interview program in Atlanta. In the mid-1970s, she served as director of communications for the city of Atlanta and press secretary for Mayor Maynard Jackson.

Cleage's essays have appeared in Essence, the New York Times Book Review, Ms., Atlanta Magazine, Pride, Black World, the Afro-American Review and other publications. She has been a columnist for the Atlanta Gazette, the Atlanta Tribune and the Atlanta Constitution, and she was the founding editor of Catalyst, a literary magazine.

Cleage's other books include the poetry collections "We Don't Need No Music," "Dear Dark Faces" and "One for the Brothers"; the essay collection "Deals with the Devil: And Other Reasons to Riot"; the short-story collection "The Brass Bed and Other Stories"; and the non-fiction work "Dreamers and Dealmakers: An Insider's Guide to the Other Atlanta."

Tickets to the Iowa Summer Rep 2002 production of "Blues for an Alabama Sky" are $17 ($13 for senior citizens and $9 for UI students and youth." Tickets are available in advance from the Hancher Auditorium box office. Any remaining tickets for each performance will be available one hour before curtain time at the Theatre Building box office.

"Blues for an Alabama Sky" tickets are also available at a substantial discount as part of an Iowa Summer Rep 2002 subscription. A subscription, which also includes tickets to Cleage's "Bourbon at the Border" and "Flyin' West," is $40 ($31 for senior citizens and $22 for UI students and youth).

Free Iowa Summer Rep 2002 brochures are available, including Cleage's bio, information about the plays, a full festival schedule and order forms for series packages. The brochures are available for pick-up at the Hancher Auditorium box office or the Theatre Building lobby, and they may be requested from either the Hancher box office or the Department of Theatre Arts, 319-335-2700.

Hancher Auditorium box office business hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. weekdays. The Hancher box office may be contacted by phone at 335-1160 in the local calling area or toll-free at 1-800-HANCHER, or by e-mail at < >. People with special needs for access, seating and auxiliary services should dial (319) 335-1158, which is equipped with TDD for people with hearing impairment who use that technology. Iowa Summer Rep individual tickets will be on sale on-line at < >.

Light picnic fare from the food service of the Iowa Memorial Union will be available on the Theatre Building plaza, overlooking the Iowa River, before 8 p.m. performances. The "Cotton Club Cafe" will begin serving at 6 p.m. Reservations are recommended, by calling 319-335-3105.

The department of theatre arts is part of the Division of Performing Arts in the UI College of Liberal Arts. For UI arts information, visit < > on the World Wide Web. To receive UI arts news by e-mail, contact < >.

For many seasons Iowa Summer Rep has pursued a unique focus in American summer theater with its single-playwright festivals, but three seasons ago Iowa Summer Rep also became an Actor's Equity Company, elevating its status as a professional theater company. Iowa Summer Rep is made possible by the support of the University of Iowa Community Credit Union.