Stage star Kimberly Marable's biggest Broadway roles have been yearslong runs in "Hadestown" and "The Lion King," blockbuster shows either backed by Twin Cities producers or that first bowed in Minnesota.
Marable last year played Persephone at the Orpheum in the national tour of "Hadestown." In the decade before that, she lit up that same stage in tours of "The Book of Mormon."
But she is departing the splashy song and dance world of Broadway musicals for her Guthrie Theater debut. In the Pearl Cleage drama "Blues for an Alabama Sky," which opens Friday in Minneapolis, Marable plays Cotton Club backup singer Angel Allen at the end of the Harlem Renaissance.
She's not by any stretch as desperate as Angel. Still, Marable relishes the change, especially because Angel is hungry for success in a play with ambition as big as any Broadway production.
"There's a relatability of these characters because they are trying to rebuild their lives after a heady period," Marable said. "We've been isolated, too, and are coming out of that. How do we hold onto each other and our dreams?"
A five-character work written in 1995, "Blues" is set in a bustling Harlem apartment building in 1930. Residents of two apartments that face each other interact as if it's just one big house and they all are family. In addition to Angel, 34, the characters include Guy Jacobs, 30, an openly gay Cotton Club costume designer; family planning clinic social worker Delia Patterson, 25; doctor Sam Thomas, 40; and Leland Cunningham, 28, recently arrived from Alabama.
Director Nicole Watson is keen to note that while the drama is set against the backdrop of history, including the Great Migration, these characters are highly contemporary. Further, the play should not have the expectations of "a sepia-toned Ken Burns documentary."
"I don't want all plays that have a time period to feel like they have to be historical documents or museum pieces," Watson said. "Sometimes we have to explode all of that."
Watson's approach to the script, while not experimental, abstracts some of the design elements for a more poetic interpretation of "Blues."
"The apartments are there but not in any realistic way," Watson said. "It's a more open gesture."
Watson's explosive creativity is one of the reasons Guthrie director Joseph Haj tapped the Yale-trained associate artistic director for Princeton's McCarter Theatre to stage "Blues."
The two first worked together a decade ago when Haj staged two plays in rotating repertory at PlayMakers Rep with Dominique Serrand. Watson served as Haj's assistant director.
"Nicole's a terrific director and I've been an admirer of her talent," Haj said, adding that Watson brings a broad knowledge of the world and theater to this work.
Playwright Cleage, who still lives in Atlanta, is suddenly being produced on major stages across the country. This comes as other Black women playwrights, including Adrienne Kennedy, whose "The Ohio State Murders" starred Audra McDonald on Broadway, also are getting more attention.
"It's about time," Watson said. "The country — our audiences — have had to catch up to stories that center Black women, in particular this amazing woman Angel."
Angel is the center of a found family, and like all families, they bicker. But that's not a sign of enmity, but of care, Watson said. "Do we have the capacity to change or are we all stuck in our own habits and cycles?"
Faye Price, the dramaturge for "Blues," sees the play in a historical context. Cleage's work is a companion piece to Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun."
"They both grapple with the idea of how we achieve our dreams," Price said.
For Haj, another play springs to mind when he thinks of "Blues": Chekhov's "Three Sisters." Like those characters in Russia, the American ones "are striving for a full and rich life," Haj said.
In her notes for the drama, Cleage wrote that while things are going south for most people as the Depression begins to bite, "far from Harlem, African American expatriate extraordinaire Josephine Baker sips champagne in her dressing room at the Folies Bergère and laughs like a free woman."
"She's living her best life," director Watson said, noting that for generations of Black Americans, especially, Baker is a beacon. "Somebody else has to get through and laugh like a free woman."
'Blues for an Alabama Sky'
Who: By Pearl Cleage. Directed by Nicole Watson.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Sat., 1 p.m. Sun. Ends March 12.
Where: Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St., Mpls.
Tickets: $31-$80. 612-377-2224 or guthrietheater.org.