Gloucester Stage Company Serves Up Full-Bodied Blues in ‘Paradise Blue’

by Shelley A. Sackett

There’s a raw poetic cadence to the dazzling dialogue of playwright Dominique Morisseau’s final play in her trilogy set in different decades in Detroit. It’s 1949, and the downtown Blackbottom entertainment district is home to many black-owned jazz clubs, including the Paradise Club. Director Jackie Davis sets the tone immediately. Against an opening montage of black and white period photos and a pained, bone-melting trumpet solo,  we hear a single gunshot. This film noir trope is a perfect entrance into ‘Paradise Blue’ and an introduction to the complicated passions that drive its five characters.

Although a structurally imperfect play, Morisseau has served up a piece of theatrical pie rich in language, character development and emotional impact. Despite the virtual production (done zoom-like with seated actors who address the camera full on), the superb cast delivers the caliber of performances that suck the audience right in, dissolving the cyber barrier.  Davis uses a stage direction reader (Aimee Hamrick) to keep the production moving. Hamrick’s “just the facts-ma’am” efficient and unobtrusive narration adds another layer of Sam Spade noir. Once again, Gloucester Stage Company has gifted its theater-hunger fans with a satisfying and innovative armchair experience.

All the action takes place in the Paradise Club, a jazz and drinks joint that both exalts and entombs Blue (Ricardo Engermann), its owner, bandleader and tortured trumpeter. Although lean and small boned, Blue casts a long shadow and his moodiness hangs like an ominous dark cloud over his head. His club is staffed by his affable and hardworking girlfriend-cook-housekeeper Pumpkin (played with confidence and self-effacement by Meagan Dilworth) and his bandmates, piano man Cornelius (Cliff Odle) and drummer P-Sam (Omar Robinson). The topic at hand is how to keep the music going in the absence of the group’s bassist, whom Blue fired after getting into a row with him.

To make ends meet, Blue decides to advertise a room for rent. When the sultry, sexy Silver (Ramona-Lisa Alexander) shows up to answer the ad wearing a red hat and carrying a wad of cash, a loaded pistol and a steamy look that could liquefy lacquer, the play’s pulse quickens. Although Alexander is seated throughout the reading, her voice and gestures spellbind the audience with their overwhelming sensuality and physicality. She is unmistakably a woman used to using her charisma and beauty to charm men into doing what she wants them to do. In Alexander’s exceptional hands, she is indeed a black widow, drawing us into her web every time she looks our way.

Although the 2hour24 minute production gets off to a slow and stilted start, once Silver shows up, there’s an uptick that is sustained until the end. This play is not plot driven; rather it is a snapshot glimpse through the keyhole of five multi-dimensional lives in Black Detroit in 1949. Morisseau’s gifted dialogue lets her characters’ layered stories slowly unfold through their rich and intimate conversations and confrontations with each other. It’s a treat to be a fly on these walls.

Pumpkin, the literal heart of the play and its moral compass, is sensitive and caring. She even carries a book of poetry which she is intent on memorizing just because of its beauty. Despite Blue’s depression and habit of manhandling her, Pumpkin only sees the goodness in him. “A woman’s job is to ease a man’s troubles. This man has a gift. Makes me feel like somebody just to be close to it,” she tells Silver.

Silver couldn’t be a starker contrast. She is aggressive, suspicious and competitive. She is also heartbreakingly sensitive, seeing demons everywhere, from the white world in which a Black man struggles to exist to her own barren womb. “I’m cursed. What’s a woman if she ain’t bearing fruit?” she confides to the sympathetic, compassionate Cornelius (whom she takes as her lover).

Although the three males are less clearly delineated, their portrayers do a splendid job of bringing them to life. Engermann plays Blue with a Denzel Washington fluid and easy delivery, his voice like caramel with a dusting of sandpaper. His and Alexander’s (Silver) phrasings, cadences and pauses are breathtakingly spot on. Odle as Corn is accessible and gentle, a wise and wizened elder statesman. Robinson does the best he can with the thinly drawn P-Sam.

While Morisseau excels at teasing out the nuances of personal relationships, her structural shortcomings in three important areas diminish her audience’s ability to appreciate her artistic intent: (1) Detroit Mayor Albert Cobo’s platform promoting urban gentrification and the buying of black businesses to cure “urban/black blight” is essential background information only obliquely referenced; (2) as the play’s principal character, Blue is underdeveloped; we need more of his backstory told by- not about- him, and (3) the ending feels out of step, strained and jarring.

Notwithstanding, ‘Paradise Blue’ is well worth the stamina required to watch and highly recommended for its superb acting, fabulous soundtrack and inspired production. Once again, Kudos to Gloucester Stage Company for raising the virtual bar yet again.

‘Paradise Blue’ — Written by Dominique Morisseau; Directed by Jackie Davis; Produced by Gloucester Stage Company at Oneline/Virtual Space, as part of its 2020 Never Dark Series. Streaming online October 1-4 at https://gloucesterstage.com/battle-not-begun/

ArtsEmerson’s One-of-A-Kind ‘An Iliad’ Is Not to Be Missed

Denis O’Hare in ArtsEmerson’s ‘An Iliad’ – Photo by Joan Marcus

By Shelley A. Sackett

“An Iliad,” the brilliant play by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare in a lamentably short run at Emerson Paramount Center, is one phenomenal piece of theater. In a mere 100 minutes, on a simple stage with no props or costume changes, the virtuoso Denis O’Hare (with the help of bassist Eleonore Oppenheim) magically creates the story behind Homer’s epic poem about the tragic Trojan War. This is no ordinary dramatic experience. It is a magic carpet ride into the deepest power and charm that theater can offer. No wonder the painted muses above the magnificently renovated stage are all smiles. They know this audience is in for a one-of-a kind experience that will resonate long after their thunderous standing ovation finally fades.

As the house lights slowly dim, a near-deafening clang arises from a stage stacked with chairs. One beacon illuminates the narrator, clad in a Sam Spade-like trench coat and hat and carrying a suitcase. It’s as if he emerges from the belly of some post-apocalyptic landscape. He approaches the audience and with an intimacy and rapport that marks the entire production, he speaks directly to them. With a sorrowful weariness he says, “Every time I sing this song, I hope it’s the last time.” He has been singing this same story for millennia: in Mycenae, in Babylon, in Gaul and now, in 21st century Boston. “It’s a good story,” he admits. That is the only understatement of the entire script. Peterson and O’Hare have written a firecracker version (hence, “An Iliad”) of Homer’s “Iliad” based on Robert Fagles’ renowned translation about the bloody story of the war between the Confederation of Greeks and Troy (located in Asia Minor or current Turkey).

In a nutshell, it all started when the Trojans stole Helen and ends with the Greeks getting her back (with a little help from that famed Trojan Horse). Along the way, we witness swords clattering, gods and goddesses interfering for malice and amusement, and several battles to the death. We also learn a lot of history and mythology (and, for the trained ear, a bit of classical Greek poetry). We meet Agamemnon, the Greek commander-in-chief, who has abducted Chryseis, the daughter of one of Apollo’s Trojan priests, and refuses to give her back. Achilles, the greatest Greek warrior, tries to no avail to persuade Agamemnon of his folly. Not until Apollo punishes the Greek armies with plagues does he finally relent and give her up. But no sooner is Apollo’s curse lifted than Agamemnon decides he deserves to be compensated for his sacrifice. That compensation is in the form of stealing Achilles’ concubine, a captured princess Achilles considers to be his bride.

Understandably, Achilles responds with epic rage and refuses to fight for Agamemnon and the Greek confederation. Without him, Agamemnon’s army is no match for the Trojans and their Achilles analog, Hector. After nine years of fruitless fighting, the Greeks are depressed and exhausted. “They’ve forgotten why they’re fighting. They just want to go home,” our narrator says. He pauses and solemnly faces the audience. “How do you know when it’s over?” he asks in a whisper.

The artistic depth and muscle of “An Iliad” lies in the way it connects ancient past to the political and linguistic vernacular of today. In a chatty, informal, almost stand-up-comic tone, the narrator compares the inability of the Greeks to give up and seek a truce to the exasperation and irrational stubbornness of someone who has waited for over 20 minutes in a supermarket line. “Do you switch lines now? No, goddam it, I’ve been here for 20 minutes, I’m gonna wait in this line. I’m not leaving ‘cause otherwise I’ve wasted my time,” the narrator says in a delivery reminiscent of the great Robin Williams, and suddenly the ancient Greek’s emotional dilemma is crystal clear.

Oppenheim’s music (how does she get all those sounds from a stand-up bass?) and Zeilinski’s dazzling lighting add enormous complexity and texture to the production as O’Hare stalks the bare stage, narrating the story, embodying his characters and time-traveling to the present to address his contemporary peers directly. He physically communicates the violence of war and the destruction it wreaks on the human body and psyche, embodying both Hector and Achilles in the play’s most wrenching scenes. With a bend of his nimble legs or a tilt of his head into a lone spotlight, he is magically transformed from Hector into his wife, Androcmache, in a tender scene where he credibly personifies and simultaneously embodies both.

The night belongs to this remarkably gifted and nimble actor, and those who miss it in Boston must make a New Year’s resolution to jump on a plane and catch its traveling production somewhere. It really is that good. For tickets and information, go to: https://artsemerson.org

‘An Iliad’ – Written by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare; Directed by Lisa Peterson; Scenic Design by Rachel Hauck; Costume Design by Marina Draghici; Lighting Design by Scott Zeilinski; Composer/Sound Design by Mark Bennett; Produced by Arts Emerson and Homer’s Coat in association with Octopus Theatricals at Emerson Paramount Center through November 24.