REVIEW: “Paradise Blue”
“Love Supreme. That’s what we call it when you hit that perfect note that cleans your sins. Like white light bathin’ him with mercy. It’s that part in the music that speak directly to God, and make you ready to play with the angels.”
“Paradise Blue”, the second play of Dominique Morisseau’s “Detroit Cycle”, makes its New York premiere as the first play of Ms. Morisseau’s three play residency at Signature Theatre. A gorgeously written, acted, and designed production, this tail-end jazz-age noir tale grapples with the vicious legacy of racist city planning in Detroit, Michigan, tracing the trajectory of black life in America by homing in on an inflection point by way of a stirring and lyrical domestic drama wholly at home in the great tradition of August Wilson and Tennessee Williams.
A low rent tragedy set in 1949 in the fictional Paradise Club and boarding house in Detroit’s Paradise Valley district, home of the famed Black Bottom neighborhood, in “Paradise Blue”, trumpeter Blue (J. Alphonse Nicholson, “Tales”)—who inherited the club and his musical talent from his deceased father—has placed his headlining jazz quartet on hiatus after his bassist demands more pay and play time. Hot-headed and short-tempered, driven mad by racism (“brilliant and second class make you insane”), Blue is quietly dueling ghosts, searching for the “love supreme”, and secretly entertaining an offer to sell his club—a prized parcel of land—to the city and start over in Chicago.
Beside him, his sweet but subservient girlfriend Pumpkin (Kristolyn Lloyd, “Dear Evan Hansen”) can’t fathom leaving the only life and community she’s ever known, cheerfully filling her days with cooking, cleaning, and poetry. Meanwhile, side men P-Sam (Francois Battiste, “Head of Passes”), the percussionist, and Corn (Keith Randolph Smith, “Malcolm X”), the piano player, bristle under Blue’s dictatorial hand.
A sweet-talker with entrepreneurial dreams of his own, P-Sam also has the hots for Pumpkin, while the older, wiser Corn—a teddy bear—mourns his late-wife and tries to smooth over any conflict. When Silver (Simone Missick, “Luke Cage”), a mysterious and buxom boarder from down South who is pure sex and swagger, arrives and stirs the pot, tensions come to a head.
Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson (“Jitney”, “Pipeline”), in cahoots with his design team (notably set designer Neil Patel), fashions a thoroughly winning mise en scène of the sort you never want to leave, flawlessly evoking the smoky sensibility of 1949 Detroit with economy and precision. Using the highly malleable Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, the audience is surrounded by a colorful frieze of vintage jazz posters, with a wide runway stage dividing it in twain; atop that an indolent ceiling fan spins and a faded old sign denoting “Paradise”, the word spelled by light-bulbs, glows.
Such naked exclamation underlines the paradox of Blue’s crisis, his paradise that becomes a prison beside the insidious constriction of black opportunity. Detroit is changing under the odious hand of a mayor pledging to rid it of “the blight” (read: black people). Blue is eager to escape and move on, P-Sam wants to fight to keep the neighborhood in black hands, and Silver, a black widow “spider woman”, wants a piece of the action while wooing Corn on the side and underscoring P-Sam’s views.
Ms. Lloyd, who just finished a marathon run as Alana Beck in “Dear Evan Hansen”, shows her versatility in the more age appropriate role of Pumpkin, the character whose arc forms the tragic crux of the play with her innocent obedience in the face of domestic abuse transformed to a newfound strength with the aid of a revolver in hand. Returning to the role following the play’s debut at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2015, Ms. Lloyd’s performance is well-paced by Mr. Santiago-Hudson, unfolding slowly toward a climactic finish that left my audience gasping and shook.
The balance of the cast is equally as excellent, particularly Ms. Missick, who walks like she invented it. While the stage can feel too empty at times and the themes and symbolism are heavily applied, there is something inescapably and irresistibly old-fashioned about “Paradise Blue”, both in structure and milieu, owing largely to the noir genre and poetic beauty of Ms. Morisseau’s words, which pierce and haunt.
Everything has a price, even paradise. In “Paradise Blue”, Ms. Morisseau deftly examines the cost of history and bigotry through the lens of about a week’s worth of action that affects the courses of lifetimes. Expertly written, rivetingly staged, and finely acted, this play is another triumphant entry by Ms. Morisseau, and a “must see” of the spring season.
Bottom Line: Dominique Morisseau completes her “Detroit Cycle” with “Paradise Blue”, a tail-end jazz-age noir tale about the cost of history and bigotry through the lens of Detroit’s racist city planning in the late 1940s. Expertly written in the vein of August Wilson and Tennessee Williams, rivetingly staged by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and finely acted by a terrific ensemble, this play is another triumphant entry by Ms. Morisseau, and a “must see” of the spring season.
The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre
The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: May 14, 2018
Final Performance: June 17, 2018