By Tulis McCall
Back in 1972, when Pippin opened with Ben Vereen as The Leading Player, I recall Life Magazine (remember that?) referred to Vereen as a “Triple Threat”. He could sing, act AND dance. Based on that definition I am here to tell you that the entire cast of “Paradise Square” is a boatload of triple threats. Every. Single. One. And PS, the night that I saw the show, Kennedy Caughell, an understudy, filled in for Chilina Kennedy as Annie Lewis. Ms. Caughell knocked it out of the park. If this season of theater does nothing else, it will teach us all about the actors who support shows as understudies and swings.
Paradise Square was another name for the area known as Five Points. While there was no Paradise Square there was a Paradise Park, which was in the center of a neighborhood made up of New York’s poorest. Among them were a hefty number of African Americans and Irish immigrants.
This fictional story revolves around the Draft Riots of 1863 – which was a real thing. New York City was suffering in the Civil war, having lost its trading connections with the South. When Lincoln created the draft, the already out of work white people protested. The protest flamed into a riot that lasted four days. African Americans suffered immensely – the black orphanage on 5th and 42nd was looted and burned and dozens, maybe more, were lynched. Black men were exempted from the draft as they were not considered full fledged human beings. So on the one hand they were insulted by the government and on the other hand they were despised by the white men who could not afford the $300 fee (worth close to $6,000 today) that would get someone out of the draft. This meant that the men being drafted were poor and white. When the protest exploded into a riot, Paradise Square took a direct hit.
At the center of Paradise Square stands the saloon of Nelly O’Brien (Joaquina Kalukango), a black woman married to an Irishman, Willie O’Brien (Matt Bogart). This is surprising, but a little internet sleuthing revealed that interracial marriages were not unheard of in New York City during the time of the Civil War. The other couple sharing the spotlight is Willie’s sister Annie (Kennedy Caughell at this performance) and her African American husband, the Reverend Samual Jacob Lewis (Nathaniel Stampley). Surrounding these four are a roughly even number of white and black people, including fresh immigrants and runaway slaves. It may be a slum, but it is teaming with people who get along with each other. Until they don’t. Then do again.
This is a tale that is ripe for the picking. With the “Big Lie” dividing this country, the rise in violence in our major cities, the continued abusive treatment dumped on the BIPOC diaspora (did you know that Biden just signed an anti-lynching bill?) – a show like this could soothe a lot of souls.
The problem here is that someone forgot to decide on the story. There is no clear beginning, middle or end. Perhaps that was intentional. After all, this is a story about a place and a community at a specific time. For my money that would make an excellent scholarly paper – and there are plenty of them around. But theatre is story telling. It is at its best when there is a clear path to follow. Of course there will be diversions and detours, but then we need to be led back to the path. Paradise Square doesn’t have a clear path. It just keeps going, and going, and going. Runaway slaves, a dance contest, not to mention dancing for dancing’s sake, Civil War casualties, corrupt politicians, unemployment, resentment turning into violence, defiance, hope and resolve. Everything has been thrown into the pot.
On the plus side, there is singing that will make you stand up and cheer and dancing that will make you weep for joy. Colin Barkell, Garett Coleman, Chloe Davis, Eilis Quinn, Sidney Dupont and A.J. Shively have wings on their feet.
And yet, without a story line to guide us, and songs that do not further the tale, in the end we are left wandering in the wilderness holding a bowlful of good intentions. We are ispired but unable to tell anyone the story of the story. Which is a damn shame.
Paradise Square: book by Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas, and Larry Kirwan; music by Jason Howland, lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare with additional music by Mr. Kirwan, inspired in part by the songs of Stephen Foster.Musical supervision, music direction and orchestrations are by Mr. Howland, with arrangements by Mr. Howland and Mr. Kirwan; directed by Moisés Kaufman; choreography is by Bill T. Jones, musical staging is by Alex Sanchez.
Scenic design by Allen Moyer, costume design by Toni-Leslie James, lighting design by Donald Holder, sound design by Jon Weston and projection design by Wendall K. Harrington. Dramaturgy is byThulani Davis and Sydné Mahone.
WITH Joaquina Kalukango, Chilina Kennedy, John Dossett, Sidney DuPont, A.J. Shively, Nathaniel Stampley, Gabrielle McClinton, Jacob Fishel, Kevin Dennis, Matt Bogart
The production also features Garrett Coleman, Colin Barkell, Karen Burthwright, Kennedy Caughell, Dwayne Clark, Conor Coleman, Eric Craig, Colin Cunliffe, Chloe Davis, Josh Davis, Bernard Dotson, Jamal Christopher Douglas, Camille Eanga-Selenge, Sam Edgerly, Shiloh Goodin, Aisha Jackson, Sean Jenness, Joshua Keith, Jay McKenzie, Ben Michael, Kayla Pecchioni, Eilis Quinn, Lee Siegel, Erica Spyres, Lael Van Keuren, Sir Brock Warren, Alan Wiggins, Kristen Beth Williams and Hailee Kaleem Wright.