Through Sun 10/20
Suzan-Lori Parks, Lynn Nottage and Tonya Barfield are noted eminent African-American playwrights. Another member of that sorority is the award-winning Dominique Morisseau, the author of The Detroit Project, a three-play cycle which includes The Skeleton Crew, Detroit ’67 and Paradise Blue. The latter is now on stage at Karamu Theater.
Called “haunting,” “vibrant,” and “a juicy and resonant piece of writing, filled to the brim with complex, empathetic characters struggling and infighting as part of a community living under extreme duress,” the script centers on Blue, a gifted trumpeter, who contemplates selling his once-vibrant jazz club in Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood to shake free the demons of his past.
Black Bottom was a predominantly black neighborhood in Detroit famous for its music scene. Major African-American blues singers, big bands and jazz artists, such as Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine, Pearl Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, and Count Basie regularly performed in the bars and clubs of neighborhood’s Paradise Valley entertainment district.
In the early 1960s, the City of Detroit conducted a renewal program to combat what it called “urban blight.” The program razed the entire Black Bottom district and replaced it with a mixed-income development designed as a model neighborhood combining residential townhouses, apartments and high rise buildings, with commercial areas. One of the buildings that went the way of regentrification was the Paradise Club, a bar owned by Blue’s father, filled with both good and bad memories.
Questions arise as Blue considers whether to sell the establishment and move to Chicago. What happens to Pumpkin, his lover and sweet poetry-quoting woman, who has dreams of her own? What does it mean for the club’s resident band? Why has a mysterious woman, with a walk that drives men mad, come to town and is renting a room above the bar?
Karamu is a perfect venue in which to experience the musically infused drama. The mostly African-American audience reacts to the highs and lows, protagonists and antagonist, with emotional verbalizations. Based on the long tradition of church and meeting hall “call and response,” in which talking and reacting during the service is allowed, even encouraged, spontaneous responses and shouts from attendees ring out. There is no doubt that the audience is into the action. And the well-directed and talented cast react to the encouragement.
Dyrell Barnett appropriately seethes and lashes out, verbally and physically, as the frustrated Blue. Latecia Delores Wilson, she of beautiful face and tender demeanor, is spot-on as Pumpkin, the oft-target of Blue’s physical and verbal torments.
Handsome Drew Pope creates a realistic P. Sam, a talented drummer, who finds himself frustrated by the lack of opportunities for a young black man. As Corn, a piano player , who is also the prop on which Blue depends, Darryl Tatum shines.
Multi Cleveland Critics Circle and Broadwayworld.com award winner Nina Domingue saunters sexually, speaks with authority, wields a mean gun, and fleshes out a Silver who is both an enigma and a woman to be dealt with.
Scenic designer Richard H. Morris, Jr.’s multi-level set fits the action well, but seems a little too high-grade and polished for the Black Bottom neighborhood. Daniel Spearman’s trumpet recording showcases the sounds of a high-quality musician. India Blatch-Geib has designed era-correct costumes. Justin Emeka’s direction keeps the pace intense while building the tension to the shocking conclusion.
Capsule judgment:Paradise Blue gets a solid, high quality, thought-inducing, drama and laugh-inducing production. It’s Karamu at its best.
The play is being runs through Sun 10/20 in the renovated Jelliffe Theater. There is free guarded, fenced, lighted parking in the Karamu lot. For tickets call 216-795-7077 or go to karamuhouse.org/
[Written by Roy Berko, member: Cleveland Critics Circle and American Theatre Critics Association]