Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires

Paradise Blue
Long Wharf Theatre
Review by Fred Sokol | Season Schedule


Leon Addison Brown and Carolyn Michelle Smith
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Paradise Blue, at Long Wharf Theatre through December 16, is authentic, artfully written, and performed with timing and understanding. One of Dominique Morisseau's trilogy of plays about Detroit, this one takes place within the confines of a jazz club in 1949. While thirty minutes or so of exposition is essential, the performance picks up and sustains after that point. It is an excellent character study benefitting from snappy dialogue and increasingly engaging plotting.

Paradise Club owner Blue (Stephen Tyrone Williams) is considering selling the place which he inherited from his father. The increasingly tension-ridden Blue is beset by demons. He, a lead trumpet player, is involved with sweet Pumpkin (Margaret Odette), who recites poetry and is both graceful and perceptive. During an opening scene, she attempts to clean the floor with a dustpan as she simultaneously reads verse. Nice moment.

Drummer P-Sam (Freddie Fulton), shorter than the other men, finds out that, for a time, he will have to sit out gigs, and he is not happy. Blue has recently fired a bassist and is reluctant to fill that position. P-Sam has proactive designs for himself and intends to follow through. Corn (Leon Addison Brown) is a longtime pianist and solid soul. Newcomer on the scene is Silver (Carolyn Michelle Smith), boldly sensual, outgoing, and a woman who has her own agenda. She rents a room above the club.

All of the action transpires in Detroit at a time when the city was unfriendly to people with dark skin. P-Sam, particularly, makes comments about the inferior feeling he has when performing in white clubs. The hot-tempered Blue feels he can boss his way around, but that does not quite happen.

Silver and Pumpkin bond as Silver, to a degree, becomes adviser to the younger woman. Blue thinks he can manipulate Silver, a woman with strength. Corn, earnest and kindly, befriends Silver who entices him further. P-Sam has eyes for Pumpkin, but can this possibly work out for him? The callous Blue, who has already made plans to dump his music joint, thinks his bullying will reap rewards. Sometimes he is affectionate with Pumpkin but he also pushes her around.

When I saw an early production of Paradise Blue in Williamstown a few years ago, the conclusion was troubling. Now, in New Haven, no such thing. It is an excellent choice and fit.

Yu-Hsuan Chen provides a set that features the interior of the club. An elevated sliding bed, situated in Silver's space, occasionally moves forward toward the audience from a previously hidden position.

Awoye Timpo's specific direction enables exquisite timing among the actors, each of whom is impressive. No weak links here.

Morisseau's Detroit '67 comes to Hartford Stage in February, and Westport Country Playhouse presents her Skeleton Crew this coming June. She is a vastly talented writer. Her gifts, evident throughout Paradise Blue, involve explicit technique through dialogue and characterization. Here, she creates multiple conflicts as each individual has an outward motive combined with inner turmoil. They are anything but flat. Instead, they are deeply driven, and part of this is due to the locale—Black Bottom, the neighborhood in Detroit where the play transpires. As did August Wilson, Morisseau depicts, through this piece of increasingly tense theater, rich and valued perceptions of time and place. I would not approximate the two playwrights, but Morisseau might provide us with a basis for comparison years from now as she expands her body of work.

Paradise Blue, through December 16, 2018, at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Dr., New Haven CT. For tickets, visit longwharf.org or call (203) 787-4282.


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