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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Paradise Blue

"Time to pick up somewhere new. I heard of Blackbottom Detroit. '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."
— Silver explaining to Detroit native Pumpkin why she's come to the club owned by Pumpkin's lover Blue who, unlike Pumpkin or Silver, wants to get away, declaring at one point "I'm choking here, I'm dying here.

, Kristolyn Lloyd and Blair Underwood (Photo credit: T Charles Erickson)
Dominique Morisseau's Paradise Blue, this season's latest world premiere at Williamstown Theatre Festival, isn't the first play with a Detroit setting. Lisa Kron, librettist of the award winning musical Fun Home set her play Well in Ann Arbor, a part of greater Detroit. Lisa D'Amour's Pulitzer Prize runner up Detroit played out in a Detroit suburb though D'Amour used Detroit as a universal rather than specific setting. Another up-and-coming woman playwright, Betty Shamieh's Roar explored life amongst a family of Palestinian immigrants living in Detroit and in Dov and Ali Anna Ziegler told the parallel story of a Jewish teacher and a muslim teacher at a Detroit high school.

And of course there's Motown: The Musical to bring me back s to Paradise Blue which is a play saturated with music to support the story and evoke the once famous Blackbottom neighborhood's downtown strip known as Paradise Valley. The current play is the second part of Motor City native Morisseau's ambitious plan to chronicle important moments in the city's African-American history. The first play in the 3-play cycle, Detroit '67, was a Public Theater Lab production and the concluding play, Skeleton Crew, will move this exploration forward to 2008 to depict four auto workers facing uncertain economic futures.

Unsurprisingly Ms. Morisseau was inspired by August Wilson's century spanning cycle. Though her text lacks Wilson's unusual musicality, and Paradise Blue's five characters fall short of the unique richness of those occupying the Wilson landscape, her dialogue does have an authentic,rhythmic naturalness. And, given the excellent choice of actors and director Ruben Santiago-Hudson's adroit staging, I found this production well worth my hour long trip to Williamstown.

The 1949 time frame does indeed focus on a time critical for the Paradise Valley community. World War II has been over for four years. While Paradise Valley's citizens aren't as rich as those in Detroit's white neighborhoods, they are a close knit group, a family of sorts. But the urban renewal spawned by the just passed Housing Act, is also creating conflict between those who see staying as survival, and those who see selling their properties as the way towards a better life.

This being a play and not a history lesson, the playwright has given Blue (movie and TV star Blair Underwood), the owner of a jazz club and rooming house he inherited from his father a very personal reason for wanting to take advantage of a cash offer for the club and the land it sits on. Seems he's haunted by the tragedy that put him in charge of running the family estabjlishment. The ghosts of that past have turned him bitter and unhappy. Worst of all, it's made him unable to really play his trumpet and catch what Corn describes as that "Love Supreme" sound." And so, he sees selling to the urban renewal people as a way to save himself even rather than selling out. The three vividly characterized people closest to him think differently.

Blue's girl friend Pumpkin (Kristolyn Lloyd) loves life in Paradise Valley. Even though Blue's loving can at times be abusive, she is willing to uncomplainingly keep the place spic and span and provide sustenance as both cook and lover. Though Blue has fired the bass player of the club's 4-piece band for complaining about the low and slow pay, the piano player Corn (August Wilson play veteran Keith Randolph Smith), and percussionist P-Sam (Andre Holland, whose extensive Broadway and Off-Broadway resume also includes an August Wilson play) feel a sale would betray their having remained loyal even as the Paradise has lost stature to neighboring clubs.

It's obvious that Morisseau wished that people like Blue had resisted the urban renewal efforts to gentrify neighborhoods like Paradise Valley. But as she gave Blue a personal reason to contemplate selling his club, she further ratchets up the drama with a fifth character: A mysterious Louisiana born lady in black named Silver (DeƁdre Aziza) who sashays into the club and takes up residence in one of the rooms for rent. She's got her own ghosts that include a dead husband, a gun, a stash of cash and her own ideas for the future of the club.

As it turns out, the play's standout scenes take place in her bedroom as we see her develop a special relationship with Corn and Pumpkin. It's also Keith Randolph Smith's Corn and Lloyd's Pumpkin who most engage us emotionally with their performances. Smith's love scenes with Aziza manage to be both passionate and funny. Pumpkin's lesson in how to hold a gun is hilarious and of course telegraphs that Chekhov's theory will be realized.

The jazz interludes that punctuate each scene cleverly coordinate Underwood's pretend trumpet playing with Kenny Rampton and Bill Sims. Jr's recorded original music. Still, well staged and mood enhancing as those recorded snippets are, they're more than likely to make you wish you could hear one complete song live. Fortunately, the playwright and director, aware of this, give us one which turns out to be a wonderful surprise as well as terrific.

Neil Patel's semi-abstract unit set smoothly takes us back and forth between the Club's bar and bandstand area and Silver's room. Rui Rita's lights, Clint Ramos's costumes, and Darron L. West's sound design further enhance the play's look and sound. If there's a major flaw in Mr. Santiago-Hudson's direction, it's is that he should have persuaded the playwright (who's been in Williamstown to help fine tune the production) to trim the overlong to the point of some tedium first act.

Most likely Miss Morisseau will fine tune both this and her first play in the cycle by the time Skeleton Crew comes to New York's Atlantic Theater where Santiago-Hudson will again direct. Eventually, someone may even mount a marathon of all three. If so, I'll be there.

Paradise Blue by Dominique Morisseau
Director: Ruben Santiago-Hudson
De'Adre Aziza (Silver), Andre Holland (P-Sam), Kristolyn Lloyd (Pumpkin),Keith Randolph Smith (Corn), Blair Underwood (Blue)
Scenic Designer: Neil Patel
Costume Designer: Clint Ramos
Lighting Designer: Rui Rita
Sound Designer: Darron West
Sound Designer: Thomas Schall
Fight Director: Kenny Rampton
Co-Composer: Bill Sims, Jr.
Stage manager: Lloyd Davis, Jr.
Running Time: Approximately 2 1/2 hours, including intermission
Williamstown Theater Festival Main Stage
From 7/22/15; opening 7/23/15; closing 8/02/15
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 7/26 matinee
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