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/