‘Paradise Blue’ evokes 1949 Detroit and early wave of gentrification
From left, Shayna Small, Alani iLongwe, Wendell B. Franklin, John Earl Jelks, and Tyla Abercrumbie / Justin Bettman

LOS ANGELES — Tony Award-nominated playwright Dominique Morisseau takes us back to 1949 in Paradise Blue. It’s one of a trilogy of plays she has written about the African-American presence in the city of Detroit. If a reader, or theatergoer, is tempted to think, Ah, like August Wilson with his 10-play treatment of his native Pittsburgh, they would not be far off. It is clear from the writing, and from the way her characters reflect some of the larger societal tensions outside the immediate scope of family and setting, that the August Wilson muse still looms large.

Paradise Blue premiered at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Williamstown, Mass., in 2012 under the direction of Ruben Santiago-Hudson. The script was published in 2019. The current production at the Geffen Playhouse is the play’s West Coast premiere.

The drama takes place in Detroit’s Blackbottom neighborhood, specifically in the Paradise jazz club, which was once the most popping place in town, but has now been supplanted by other clubs with a lower cover charge. It’s still the largest club, however, and the prime object for a buyout as urban renewal (read: removal of the “blight”) sets in. If it sells out, that will prompt the rest of the neighborhood to fall in its wake and help to “make Detroit bright white.”

So trumpet-playing club owner Blue (Wendell B. Franklin), who inherited the club from his father, has a tough decision to make. He’s already fired his bass player, and the other band members of the Blackbottom Quartet, who are residents in the upper-floor rooms of the building, are concerned for their future. In typical noir fashion, a smoking hot, mysterious, leggy stranger, the dressy, irresistible Silver (Tyla Abercrumbie), arrives to rent a room with board. Her seductive spiderwoman manners threaten to permanently alter the delicate valence among the denizens of the building.

Blue has Pumpkin (Shayna Small), a much younger woman, as his consort—lover, rooming house cook, waitress and cleaning person. She is the era’s standard ingenue, innocent, youthfully dowdy, naïve to the wicked ways of the world, and great lover of poetry. Her current fave is the Black writer James Weldon Johnson, whose poems speak to her and which she commits to memory for permanent keepsaking. If there were a pivotal character who most evolves during the course of the action, it would be Pumpkin, gradually maturing and finding her voice both in word and in song. One could be forgiven for assuming that her character may be the most closely related to the young African-American playwright. She quotes a beloved line of poetry that affirms “the right to make my dreams come true.”

The two other characters are P-Sam (Alani iLongwe), the percussionist, a fast-talking hustler always eager to find his next gig, and impatient with Blue’s waffling on the future of the club. And Corn (John Earl Jelks), the piano man, a self-effacing older widower who moves deliberately and is a sucker for the spiderwoman’s wiles.

If Blue sells the club, where does that leave the other members of the band? In the face of his indecisiveness, could they conceivably co-own and -manage it? After all, as someone has the sharpness to observe, they are the ones doing the work. “Take my music away from me,” one character states, “and all I got is chaos.”

Paradise Blue actually has another character, but he is offstage and unseen. That would be Whitey, or the embodiment of what we call, in Critical Race Theory, the white supremacist power structure that has run the U.S.A. since 1619. How Detroit has grown, how it has industrialized, how it has opened its factory gates to immigrants from many lands and to thousands of Southern Blacks moving north in the Great Migration for jobs and a piece of dignity, how it’s rebuilding itself now by forcing inner-city Black folk to move out and away, and how Black musicians are relegated to subservient jobs and pay; all this is in Whitey’s hands. More correctly, from a Marxist point of view, in the ruling or dominant class’s hands, but those hands, then and there, look mighty white.

We know from the banter among the characters that these forces are at work out on the street, and as Blue returns from meetings at the city center with developers, politicians, and offers. But how the drama of the club relates to that wider world is only sketchily drawn. This hothouse approach contrasts with some of Morisseau’s previous work, for instance in Ain’t Too Proud, a “jukebox musical” about The Temptations for which she wrote the script showing how the individual members of the group got together, where they emerged from, what became of them, the social influences blowing around them, etc. And in Skeleton Crew, which directly took on the auto industry, racism and the effect of layoffs in the workplace.

Except fleetingly at best, the larger social picture outside the club assumes scant profile. Did any of these musicians work in auto? World War II had just ended in 1945—did any of them serve, or work in war production, and how did that impact their lives? If urban renewal was coming, with all its race-based assumptions, were there any political, community and civic organizations in Detroit involved in protest, organizing, or even in conversation about the city’s future?

In this sense, too, much of August Wilson’s work has been critiqued. That same Whitey is generally unseen there as well. Racism and oppression hang thick in the air but are rarely personified by white characters. What happens, so often and so predictably, as it does here, is that characters aim their anger not at the unseen class enemy if you will, or even racial enemy if that’s your bent, but internally in a kind of self-destructive circular firing squad. We do not necessarily require a work of art to ooze relentless hopefulness, yet what profit is there in depicting despair without surcease?

As the play winds down (two acts, one intermission) a vague consensus seems to be building concerning the future of the club, with or without Blue, whether in any way realistic given the trajectory of urban replacement going on, or a sweet fantasy. But the playwright makes a sudden, shocking gearshift that sends the denouement off in a totally different direction. Playgoers will have to decide for themselves whether or not the groundwork has been properly laid for this explosive turn of events. No spoilers here, but personally, I question it. Students of Morisseau’s work will be debating that for a long time.

Direction by Stori Ayers is spot on. The way she portrays her characters is highly individuated and sensitive, each with their own social tics and speech patterns. There’s just enough actual music in the play to remind us who these characters are. The scenic deign by Edward E. Haynes, Jr., the costume deign by Wendell C. Carmichael, and the lighting by Alan C. Edwards are simply beyond superb. It’s a magnificent production of a play that the committed theatergoer really should check out for the acting and staging alone, even if the ultimate verdict on the play itself might be mixed.

A video of playwright Dominique Morisseau discussing her work can be viewed here. Morisseau is an eloquent advocate not only for new playwrights but also for new audiences in the theater, and for everybody’s voices to be heard.

Paradise Blue runs at the Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse through Dec. 12. The Geffen is located at 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles 90024. The box office website is here. Its phone and its box office window hours are Tues.–Sun., 12-6 p.m., at (310) 208.2028. Or email boxoffice@geffenplayhouse.org. Geffen Playhouse’s current COVID-19 policy requires guests to be vaccinated and to wear masks.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. Aside from numerous awards for his writing from the International Labor Communications Association, he received the Better Lemons “Up Late” Critic Award for 2019. His latest project is translating the nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, the first volumes available from International Publishers NY.

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