It’s 1949, Detroit, and the owner of a jazz club is struggling against the increasing weight of personnel, business, and relationship decisions. Sounds mundane, but this is the canvas upon which Dominique Morisseau paints a rich, beautiful pallette of pain, fleeting joy, and the quest for something lasting. Performed by a superb cast under the discerning direction of Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Paradise Blue at the Signature is a bracing and invigorating new play by an exciting young playwright.
Challenging, warm, in dialogue with while advancing tradition, innovatively staged, and full of clear-eyed compassion: there is nothing not to love about this play.
Blue (J. Alphonse Nicholson) is a hot-shit trumpeter, bandleader, and owner of the Paradise Club, a jazz spot in Detroit’s Paradise Valley, the epicenter of Detroit black arts and culture. His band—percussionist P-Sam (Francois Battiste) and pianoman Corn (Keith Randolph Smith)—worry about finding a bassist to replace the one Blue just fired; his girlfriend Pumpkin (Kristolyn Lloyd) fusses over keeping the club’s kitchen and boarding operations running; and a beautiful, mysterious out-of-towner, Silver (Simone Missick) who waltzes into the club looking for a room ratchets an already tense situation up a few notches. Add to this pressures that Blue faces from the city to sell his club in the name of “urban renewal” and the overbearing demons of musical genius he inherited from his father, and the result is a deeply fraught man upon whom the rest of the characters rely. One crack and much could come tumbling down around and on top of Blue.
Trouble is: cracks abound in Blue. Although he counters any public perception of vulnerability with bravado and aggression, Blue is profoundly troubled and very dangerous to himself and others. Nicholson’s performance skillfully keeps Blue’s pain present and at all times, sometimes just below the surface, and at others boiling over, but constantly at the ready to lash out in unpredictable ways. Under the skillful guidance of Santiago-Hudson, the rest of the cast finds a similar balance between the everyday strength to carry on and the bursting out of welled-up anger and agony (an exception might be Silver, who knows exactly who she is and makes no apologies or efforts to suit anybody else’s desires. Missick owns and oozes this confidence with every purposeful stride). Morisseau’s language is regularly colloquial and casual, but as characters talk about the seemingly quotidian matters of their everyday lives, playwright and cast make clear that tides of history, desire, and anxiety attend upon every word.
Morisseau’s dance partner for this particular evening at the Paradise Club is August Wilson. The play invokes her great predecessor regularly, enriching its story and import by engaging with a powerful tradition. Wilson’s entire American Century Cycle emerges variously throughout the script. Mysterious stranger in black wanders in off the street looking for a room? Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Hothead trumpeter threatening to explode? Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Ghosts of family and musical history demanding attention? The Piano Lesson. Band leader wanting to make it big? Seven Guitars. Trumpet call opening the gates to Heaven? Fences. Urban renewal threatening to destroy a community? Two Trains Running, Jitney, Radio Golf. The climax recalls King Hedley II. The only Wilson play without a direct analogue here is Gem of the Ocean, but make no mistake about it: Aunt Ester watches over these proceedings carefully.
Still, Paradise Blue is in no way derivative. Quite the contrary: this is a play that draws strength from its theatrical past in order to take the tradition into exciting new directions. Paradise Blue is the third play in Morisseau’s trilogy (joining Detroit ’67 and Skeleton Crew), The Detroit Project, that works with the playwright’s hometown in ways similar to what Wilson did with Pittsburgh: looking to a specific historical context in order to invite reflection on social and human challenges that are at once contemporary and universal. Morisseau’s version of this work recalls Wilson, but refracts uniquely through a playwrighting voice of singular power and grace.
Brought to life through the music and sounds of Bill Sims Jr. and Darron L. West on an impressively efficient stage designed by Neil Patel, Paradise Blue summons the complex nexus of pain, yearning, and joy at the heart of 1940s bop jazz in order to craft a vibrant portrait of one week in the life of one club that is awash in generations of African-American history. The implication throughout the play is that Blue’s trumpet plays so much more than the notes that come out, a spirit captured skillfully and wonderfully by Morisseau.
Paradise Blue runs to June 10, 2018. More production info can be found here.