By Donna Herman
Paradise is in the eye of the beholder in Dominique Morisseau’s Paradise Blue. It is the second play in her 3-play cycle “The Detroit Projects,” and the first offering in her 5-year residency at Signature Theatre. The Paradise Club is a kind of living hell for its owner Blue (J. Alphonse Nicholson). For Pumpkin (Kristolyn Lloyd), his girlfriend and the club’s cook, waitress, bartender & laundress, it’s heavenly.
Paradise Blue is set in 1949 in the area known as Paradise Valley in the predominantly African-American neighborhood of Black Bottom, Detroit. At this point in history, although the buildings were showing their age, this was an area dominated by African-American owned businesses and professional services. The Black Bottom-Paradise Valley area is also regarded as having made significant contributions to American music from the 1930’s to the 1950’s.
For Pumpkin, the Paradise Club and Paradise Valley represent security and safety. Sent there as a girl to live with her Aunt who ran a beauty parlor, she was taken in by the community when her Aunt died. She knows everyone and everyone knows her. She is happy working in the bar, being with Blue and memorizing poetry by Georgia Douglas Johnson and reciting it to his band mates Corn (Keith Randolph Smith) and P-Sam (Francois Battiste).
On the other hand, Blue hates it there. He is haunted by memories of family tragedy that revolved around the Club and it is beginning to seriously mess with his head and his musical abilities. He wants out of the club and out of Detroit. He’s secretly planning to take the urban renewal offer of $10,000 to the business owners of the Paradise Valley strip for their land so he can go to Chicago with Pumpkin. He knows that his community will think he’s a sellout so he’s trying to keep his plans on the down low.
But in a tight-knit community, everybody knows everything. P-Sam knows that the mayor’s plans to clean up the slums really means “we the blight he talking about!” And he doesn’t trust Blue not to take the money and run. Blue has had a fight with the bassist who has quit, and now put the band on hiatus until they can find a new bass player. This means no money coming in for calm, kindly Corn and cocky, ladies’ man P-Sam.
Into this volatile situation Silver (Simone Missick), the sultry and mysterious lady in black arrives. She comes into the club with her slo-o-ow, deliberate walk, form fitting black suit, red lipstick and a suitcase. She’s seen the notice in the club’s window advertising rooms for rent and enquires about it. But when Blue tells her he only has one-person rooms that aren’t big enough for her and her husband, she coolly advises him that her husband is dead. It turns out her bosom is endowed with more than womanly attributes – she’s got a big bankroll in there too. She peels a few bills off the bankroll and tells Blue she wants the room. Of course, Silver becomes known as the black widow and rumors start flying around the neighborhood. She’s killed her husband, she’s slept with over 50 men, she’s killed every man she’s slept with.
But she tells Pumpkin that she was compelled to come to Black Bottom “‘Specially down this strip in Paradise Valley where folks got all they own business. If it’s somewhere that Colored folks is doing more than sharecroppin’ and reapin’ White folks harvest… I ought to be there. They say that here’s where folks sellin’ automobiles and bettin’ on the Policy numbers and dancin’ in the nighttime like they just as free as the Mississippi river. I’m here so I can get a taste of all that.” Turns out Silver is a liberated woman in a decidedly unliberated time. And she grew up in the music world and knows a thing or two about running a club.
Each person endows the Paradise Club with the power to destroy or sustain their lives. Playwright Morisseau, Director Santiago-Hudson and the excellent ensemble cast who work together like a Swiss clock, with a specificity and precision that is beautiful to behold, manage to march the piece to its inevitable conclusion without being obvious. And by using humor mixed with compassion the tension mounts without becoming overwhelming.
Paradise Blue By Dominique Morisseau, Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson
WITH: J. Alphonse Nicholson (Blue); Kristolyn Lloyd (Pumpkin); Keith Randolph Smith (Corn); Francois Battiste (P-Sam); Simone Missick (Silver).
Scenic Design by Neil Patel; Costume Design by Clint Ramos; Lighting Design by Rui Rita; Sound Design by Darron L. West; Original Music by Kenny Rampton; Music Director, Bill Sims, Jr.; Hair and Wig Design by Charles G. LaPointe; Fight Direction by Thomas Schall; Production Stage Manager, Laura Wilson; Casting by Caparelliotis Casting; Publicity by Boneau/Bryan-Brown. Presented by the Signature Theatre, Paige Evans, Artistic Director; Harold Wolpert, Executive Director. At the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd St., For tickets call Tickets: (212) 244-7529 or visit: http://www.signaturetheatre.org/shows-and-events/Productions/2017-2018/Paradise-Blue.aspx#buy-tickets.