Sunday, December 9, 2018

Review of "Paradise Blue"

In the early part of the 20th century, the Detroit neighborhood known as Black Bottom, was the center of African American life in the city.  It was one of the only areas where African Americans could legally reside and own businesses.  The Paradise Valley section was the entertainment epicenter where jazz music and nightclubs flourished until federal housing policies allowed prejudiced and intolerant local politicians to literally level the areas in the name of urban renewal.  
The cast of "Paradise Blue."  Photo by T. Charles Erickson. 
In the highly satisfying Paradise Blue, the playwright Dominique Morisseau has taken this little known historical event and crafted a tale that explores ambition, loyalty, and confronting the ghost of one’s past.  The play is the second in her trilogy known as “The Detroit Projects.”  All three shows are earmarked for Connecticut productions this season – Detroit ’67 will be on the boards at Hartford Stage beginning in February 2019 and The Skeleton Crew will be seen at The Westport Country Playhouse in June 2019.
Stephen Tyrone Williams in "Paradise Blue."  Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
The show revolves around Blue (Stephen Tyrone Williams), a struggling jazz club owner/player.  He is no-nonsense in the way he runs the nightclub he inherited from his deceased father and in his temperament in leading his musical quartet.  With the abrupt departure of their bass player, the only two musicians remaining are the pianist, Corn (Leon Addison Brown), an older man who is somewhat of a father figure to Blue and P-Sam (Freddie Fulton), an impetuous young drummer.  Blue’s live-in girlfriend Pumpkin (Margaret Odette), an obedient and passive woman who recites poetry while not cleaning and cooking (the club also functions as a rooming house), rounds out the group until a mysterious, flirtatious female named Silver (Carolyn Michelle Smith), takes a room in the joint.
Leon Addison Brown and Carolyn Michelle Smith in "Paradise Blue." Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
Silver, with her secretive background and motives, is the catalyst for the dramatic arc in the show.  Her interactions with each person causes them to consider anew their standing within the confines of the nightclub as well as their purpose in life.  This reevaluation spills over into direct confrontation as the play comes to its convulsive end.
Freddie Fulton, Leon Addison Brown and Stephen Tyrone Williams in "Paradise Blue." Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
Ms. Morisseau has created five distinct personalities that, through the course of the play, are shaken by life-changing decisions and turmoil.  They come across as fully fleshed out characters that have different motives, which are adeptly broadened as the play develops .  She incorporates soulful jazz music and a bit of other-worldly spirits to tell their story.  She nimbly incorporates societal and interpersonal practices of the time-period, all under the backdrop of political and social upheaval.

Stephen Tyrone Williams‘s Blue is a man buckling under the weight of self-imposed aspirations and a crippling psychosis.  The actor can be playful, stern, and bullheaded.  He gives a deeply layered performance of a man slowly succumbing to his inner demons.  Leon Addison Brown imbues Corn with a touch of old-school wisdom as well as weariness.  It is a deftly shaded portrayal of a man going through the motions of living until his zest for life is reawakened.  Carolyn Michelle Smith is sexy, independent and determined as Silver, a cagey seductress who stirs the pot within the jazz club with unexpected and daring results.  Margaret Odette’s Pumpkin is deferential and dutiful.  The actress is a simmering cauldron of pent-up emotions and fears that are unleashed at the show’s climax.  Freddie Fulton’s P-Sam can be juvenile and irresponsible. While not the most nuanced performance, his characterization does shine light on the loneliness and alienation African Americans felt during these times.
Carolyn Michelle Smith and Margaret Odette in "Paradise Blue." Photo by T. Charles Erickson,
Director Awoye Timpo sets down the parameters of the production from the get go.  Within the first ten minutes the audience knows a lot about each character and their possible motives.  He slowly, even cautiously, ratchets up the tension as the show progresses with once solid alliances becoming frayed and new relationships are created.  The developing friction is balanced with meditative moments and musical interludes that deepen the story.

Daniel Kluger’s sound design - from the melodious trumpet solos to the otherworldly resonances - is enriching and vibrant.  The simple nightclub setting by scenic designer Yu-Hsuan Chen is straightforward, with his upstairs apartment piece skillfully emerging in and out of view.

Paradise Blue, playing through December 16th at Long Wharf Theatre.

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