9/28/2019 PARADISE BLUE Kenny Leon's True Colors Theatre
Silhouetted against a deep blue window, a trumpeter wails a mournful riff, its agonized tone screaming as if his horn were attached to his heart and soul, his music tearing from his core like the tortured howl of a soul in hell. A shot rings out.
And we are immediatedly launched into the decaying comforts of Paradise Blue, a blues bar in Detroit's Paradise Alley, 1949, a few years shy of the total annihilation of the neighborhood by "Urban Renewal" (actually code for "clear out all the People of Color"). Paradise Alley was a Mecca for the jazz and blues greats of the thirties and forties, and black-owned businesses thrived there, as well as in the adjacent Black Bottom neighborhood. But a man named Albert Cobo had just been elected mayor on the promise of ridding the city of urban blight, and the future of the neighborhood is sealed.'
But for now, Paradise Blue is eking by, its "house band" led by owner Blue, the trumpeter from the prologue. ("It's my bar, my band, no one else gets any solos.") He is a man haunted by his past, fearful about he future, cruel to hose who love him and those who play for him. He is considering selling the bar while there is still time a begin a new life.
Pumpkin, his partner, is the heart and soul of the place -- barmaid, laundress, emotional support -- always with a book of poems in hand, committing as many to memory as possible, always ready to forgive Blue's
abuse of her. Drummer P-Sam is a "player," always on the prowl, always seeking an edge, a con. Keyboard man Corn is a born mediator, keeping the peace until there is no more peace to keep
Into there haven slinks Silver, a classic femme fatale, maybe even a black widow, and the stage is set for confrontation, passion, and the inevitable gunshot you know must end the music.
Dominique Morisseau's Paradise Blue is part of her "Detroit Projects," following Detroit '67 and Skeleton Crew, both of which were produced by True Colors (and both of which I unfortunately missed) . She is also the playwright of Pipeline, a terrific play produced earlier this year by Horizon Theatre in a memorable production.
Paradise Blue has much to recommend it - a Curley-Clay twins set that postively oozes atmosphere, a lighting plot filled with night and shade, original music (by Russell Gunn who also provides the trumpet solos) that soaks into your soul like the heartbeat of damnation, and an attention to period detail that is almost overwhelming.
But it is all in the service of a story that seems to be only partially developed, as if it were a jazz solo missing its heart. The first thing I noticed was the lack of patrons at the bar. Yes, most of the scenes take place "After Hours," but there still seems no evidence of any life outside the doors. It's as if these characters are in Purgatory, playing the blues to an empty house.
The character of Silver is also a bit too thinly developed to justify her effect on the others. Her (shady?) past is only hinted at, and her interactions with Corn and with Pumpkin lead to results far out of proportion to their set-up.
Then too, the inevitable gunshot seems just wrong. The crisis has been resolved, Blue had found his solo, has purged the agony in his heart, has (seemingly) banished the cruelty he inflicts on Pumpkin. Is SIlver's influence that great, that satanic, that all-consuming? As it stands now, the play just stops, leaving us with a WTF-just-happend reaction, a pity since the tension leading up to it is so profoundly intense, so gut-wrenchingly visceral. It's almost as if Ms. Morisseau won't let her characters be redeemed, won't let us find a common humanity in them, won't let their music transcend their fate.
Still, this quintet of actors -- Javon Johnson as Blue, Cynthia D. Barker as Pumpkin, Tangela Large ax Silver, Keith Bolden as Corn, and Enoch King (who was in both prior Detroit plays) as P-Sam -- are all terrific, finding a heart in these characters that deepens their playwright-limited actions. They are the real reason you SHOULD see this play,
And I can't help but respond positively to the overall mood of the piece. This is a story told in the vernacular of Blues, emotions trumping logic, lyricism ahead of action, reaction churned from a place deep within that makes cruelties inevitable, redemption impossible, spirit-suspicion Inexorable.
Paradise Alley and the adjacent Black Bottom (**) neighborhood is long gone, a victim of the urban planning of the 1950's and 1960's -- if you've ever wondered why I-20 through downtown Atlanta has so many bends and twists, it's for the same reason -- so its construction could demolish the neighborhoods City Planners wanted demolished. Photographs taken in Black Bottom shortly before its demise show that the buildings, while old and "lived in" were a far cry from the "blight" planners used to justify their removal.
What does live on is the music, the legacy of blues and jazz that found such a fertile soil in the clubs and bars of Paradise Alley. What does live on are the characters in Ms. Morisseau's Detroit plays, three slices of African American history, three views of her home city that won't be erased by my quibbles and ignorance.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #TrueColorsParadiseBlue )
** Before you jump to conclusions, you should know that Black Bottom got its name long before the 20th-century African migration into the area: it was named by the first French settlers for the dark and rich river-bottom soil found along the Detroit River, an apt metaphor for the fertile creativity that thrived -- for a time-- in the 20th century.