Call it art imitating life (or cry “Girl, same.”), but some events in Blues for an Alabama Sky seem like you could have just read about them in the news. However, the show was not only written more than 20 years ago, but it’s also set in 1930s Harlem.
When the play’s queen bee, Guy Jacobs, a gutsy gay black man, gets attacked by “young hoodlums down the street trying to prove their manhood,” you may cue the recent alleged assault on openly gay Empire actor Jussie Mollett in Chicago.
I won’t spoil other plot points, but take it from actor Chad Promise: “Everything in the show is what people in coffee shops are talking about today—racism, classism, abortion. We encounter them every day. If we don’t learn from history, we are bound to repeat it.”
Promise, who isn’t gay, portrays Guy, who is “disheveled” when he arrives for “high tea” with a small blood stain on his snazzy ensemble of tuxedo pants, a formal shirt with an ascot, and a silk smoking jacket.
“You’re bleeding!” cries his gal pal Angel Allen.
“No, I’m not. But somebody is!” boasts Guy. “If you ever see me in a fight with a bear, you help the bear.”
The play’s director, Renee van Nifterik, who has been distracted this week dealing with a suicide watch for her husband’s friend (girl, whose life is easy?), says that she’s “only heard a snippet” about the alleged assault on Mollett. “I don’t know very much, except that he was attacked for being gay. Guy was also attacked for the same reason. I don’t know Smollett’s reaction, but we could all take a page from Guy’s book, and that is to not change to appease anyone and to not live in fear or hide who you are. Be who you are, and be bold! Guy’s strength of character comes from being unapologetically who he is, knowing what he wants from life, and having the guts to go for it.”
The play by Pearl Cleage continues through Feb. 10 as the Pearl Theater’s annual Black History Month show.
“Even though it is set 90 years ago, it deals with issues that are still relevant today,” says van Nifterik.
Promise, who is 27, is a former basketball standout at Baytown Lee High School, where he graduated in 2010.
“My freshman year, I took theater as an art credit, and I enjoyed it so much that I came back,” he says. Success in roles such as Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew and Prince Eric (Ariel’s love interest) in The Little Mermaid helped convince him to major in theater at San Jacinto College in Pasadena.
Promise says he’s “not sure when I learned to accept homosexuals. I was always raised to accept everyone. I wasn’t in close proximity with homosexuals until I got to college. The first really good friend I met when I was in college was homosexual. Although I didn’t find out he was gay until later in our friendship, it never changed the fact that he was, and continues to be to this day, one of the best friends and people I’ve ever met in my life. Still today, I have many, many [gay] friends.
“Guy Jacobs lived in a time when not only was it not accepted to be homosexual, but it was so rare to cross paths with one that when most folks did, it was hard to accept. Unfortunately, we still have issues with accepting homosexuals in our country, just like we have issues with accepting people of different races, ethnic backgrounds, religions, etc. It’s a part of this country’s history. This play symbolizes so many things we continue to go through today. Although we’ve come a long way, it proves we have so much further to go.”
After earning an associate degree in theater and film at San Jac, Promise enrolled at West Texas A&M University in Canyon.
In nearby Amarillo, some 10 hours from Baytown, he portrayed Horse (as in “hung like a horse”) in the musical The Full Monty.
“And yes, we did the nude scene,” he says. “At the end when we went ‘the full monty,’ there was a bright light that flashed us, creating a silhouette. It was definitely the most freeing experience I ever had on stage. The director and the guys in the cast were just amazing throughout the entire experience. It was absolutely incredible. Of course, I had a lot of fear at first, but the process was so smooth and the people around the production were so supportive and that made it a lot easier. The show was a big hit!”
Returning home, Promise says he had “no qualms” about portraying a gay man in his own backyard.
“Once I read the script and found out how rich the character was in substance, [his sexuality] wasn’t at the forefront of my thinking process as an actor,” he says. “My job as an actor is to portray characters and their stories, so being able to step out of Chad and step into Guy was all I wanted to do.”
Rounding out the cast of Blues for an Alabama Sky are Jasmin Roland, Caprice Carter, James West III, and Eric Williams as Leland.
What: Blues for an Alabama Sky
When: Now-Feb. 10
Where: Pearl Theater, 14803 Park Almeda Dr.
More info: pearl-theater.com