“Black and Blue and Jazz All Over”
The late August Wilson, whose ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle chronicles the African-American experience by placing each (except one) in Pittsburgh during a different decade of the 20th century, never used a barroom setting. On the other hand, the jazzy, sexy Paradise Blue—the second play in Dominique Morisseau’s Wilson-inspired Detroit Trilogy (the others are Detroit ’67 and Skeleton Crew)—takes place in one.
|J. Alphonse Nicholson, Simone Missick. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Paradise Blue, which premiered at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2015 and is now making its New York debut (with two of its original cast members) at the Pershing Square Signature Center, is reminiscent in many ways of Wilson’s work, including its racial attitudes and poetically colloquial black dialect.
Morisseau’s highly actable and often humorous dialogue reveals the hardships black musicians of the time faced, especially when seeking work in white clubs, where all sorts of restrictions were placed on them and they were treated poorly. Although it falls a bit short of Wilsonian stature, it’s not hard to consider this always engrossing work, sizzlingly staged by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the saloon drama the great playwright never wrote.
It’s 1949 and we’re at the Paradise Club, a blues and bop jazz hangout on a downtown strip called Paradise Valley, known for its musical contributions, in Detroit’s black community of Black Bottom.
The club is realized in the Linney Courtyard Theatre by designer Neil Patel on a stage viewed from two facing sets of bleachers: on one side is the bar and entrances to the kitchen and street; in the middle are nightclub tables and chairs, as well as places for musicians and soloists; and at the other side is a slightly raised bedroom. Overhead, a large sign running from one side to the other and ringed with electric bulbs, shouts PARADISE. Rui Rita paints the tired place with just the moody lighting you’d expect and the characters wear Clint Ramos-designed clothes that speak instantly of a time and place.
|Francois Battiste, J. Alphonse Nicholson, Keith Randolph Smith, Kristolyn Lloyd. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
When the lights go down, a recorded set of original jazz by Kenny Rampton, sounding live (thanks to great sound from Darron L. West), prepares us for a story about a guy named Blue (J. Alphonse Nicholson, charismatic if too insistently intense). He’s a good-looking, talented, but blocked trumpet player who’s also the proprietor of the struggling club, where music is played, drinks served, and rooms are rented. Spotlighted with his horn to his lips, he begins to play when, suddenly, there's a gunshot quickly followed by a blackout.
The temperamental Blue, battling the demons of a tragic family past, rules the joint with the help of his cute but proper girlfriend, Pumpkin (Kristolyn Lloyd, sweet and comely), who allows Blue to take advantage of her good nature as the place’s chief cook and bottle washer. Escape lies in her love of reciting the poetry of Harlem Renaissance poetess Georgia Douglas Johnson and, as we ultimately learn, surprisingly, a hidden talent for singing hot jazz.
This being one of those plays where patrons never seem to visit the business represented, Pumpkin’s audience is limited to the overweight piano player, Corn (Keith Randolph Smith, impressive), a gentle, middle-aged widower who serves as the peacemaking voice of reason, and the slick, self-confident, percussionist, P. Sam (Francois Battiste, coolly magnetic), who will eventually have an eye for Pumpkin. Early on, Sam’s upset because the high-strung Blue has fired the band’s bassist, without which their Black Bottom Quartet is an unemployed trio.
One more character shows up, however, a mysterious female stranger who convinces the distrustful Blue to rent her a room. Her name is Silver (Simone Missick, stealing all her scenes), and she’s a seductive, cash- and pistol-packing mama in black, straight out of a film noir (all she needs is a private eye), who walks with such undulating sensuality you can practically hear the watching eyeballs popping.
Considered a black widow with a deadly bite (which Corn discovers is actually pretty tasty), she’s one smart Louisiana cookie. Viewing Black Bottom as a land of opportunity for free black souls like her, she advises Blue on how to run his club, advice he wants no part of. You know trouble’s brewing, though, when she later informs Pumpkin on how to stand up to her man and teaches her how to shoot a gun.
Blue, wrestling with an inability to recapture his musical gift, has secretly decided to sell the Paradise to the city for $10,000 as part of the new mayor’s neighborhood redevelopment plan (which doesn’t augur well for the black population) so he can move to Chicago, taking the reluctant Pumpkin with him. Everyone, for their own reasons, is opposed to the move, which they believe will be Blue's selfishness robbing them of a place they consider a sanctuary from the biased world’s harshness. When the numbers-playing Sam wins a lot of money, he and Silver come up with a counterplan.
And therein lies the rather conventional plot. Things grow increasingly melodramatic, however, and the late accumulation of developments and their contrived resolution bring the play to an ending that, for all its shock value, is as hard to buy as a Saturday night orchestra seat to Hamilton.
Paradise Blue, absorbing as it is, too frequently has the feel of something you’ve seen and heard before, probably in some of those August Wilson plays. It nonetheless proves once again that Dominique Morisseau is a playwright to follow, whether she continues to focus on Detroit or to widen her scope, as in her recent Pipeline.
Linney Courtyard Theatre/Pershing Square Signature Center
489 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through June 10