Paradise Blue – Review by Tom Holehan

The playwright of the moment, if you are to believe the Connecticut theatre scene anyway, has to be Dominique Morisseau whose plays, “Detroit ‘67” and “Skeleton Crew”, are on schedule to be produced next year at Hartford Stage and the Westport Playhouse. They are part of a trilogy of works from the playwright that includes “Paradise Blue” which is currently in production at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre.

Set in 1949, “Paradise Blue” refers to the nightclub owned by Blue (Stephen Tyrone Williams) in the Paradise Valley section of the famed Black Bottom in Detroit. It is this area where jazz greats like Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington once made appearances but, as the play begins, times are changing for the African-American owned businesses. A complete renovation of the area is underway and Blue’s club is more than likely destined for the chopping block. Blue, who leads a small jazz band at the club that includes Corn (Leon Addison Brown) and P-Sam (a dynamic Freddie Fulton), has plans for he and his girlfriend, Pumpkin (Margaret Odette) to get out ahead of the game until the mysterious Silver (Carolyn Michelle Smith) arrives on the scene to book a room and stir things up.

Morisseau seems to have been influenced by the late, great playwright August Wilson who wrote a series of ten plays, “The Pittsburgh Cycle”, which explored the African-American experience over various decades in the 20th century. But where Wilson’s work had a broader range as it examined the poisonous history of slavery and the systemic preponderance of racism in this country, Morisseau relies more on domestic drama that, by curtain, veers into melodrama. Blue’s abusive treatment of Pumpkin stems from a troubled upbringing by a cruel father who still haunts him daily. It’s potent but familiar material and the plot, such as it is, doesn’t really strive for any greater purpose. And for a play that is often too leisurely directed by Awoye Timpo (it clocked in at nearly three hours on opening night), its abrupt and puzzling ending seems rather off-key.

The cast of “Paradise Blue”, however, is uniformly strong. Odette’s Pumpkin is very much the heart of the production and her numerous poetry readings are delivered with a somber longing for a better life. Williams’ fiery persona makes him a powerful and tragic presence along with Fulton, whose heartbreaking realization of unfulfilled love is deeply felt. Silver’s seduction of Corn is both sweet and sexy and the actors play it off beautifully together. Brown is also complex enough an actress to make you wonder about Silver’s motivation right up until the final curtain.

Yu-Hsuan Chen’s set design is perfectly rendered and Lex Liang’s costuming finds especially good contrast with the two women in the play. A mixed review from me, but “Paradise Blue” does hold the distinction of being the first contemporary play in a long time that follows the theatre maxim: If a gun is produced in act one, it must be fired in act two. You’ve been warned.
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“Paradise Blue” continues at the Long Wharf Theatre through December 16. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at: 203.787.4282 or visit: www.longwharf.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

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