Chicago Theatre Review
Vibrant Characters Sparkle in Congo Square’s ‘What I Learned in Paris’
What I learned in Paris – Congo Square Theatre
A wonderful play with charm, sensitivity, and a ferocious wit, “What I Learned in Paris” has received a terrific treatment in its Chicago premiere from Congo Square Theatre.
Set in 1973 in Atlanta, “What I Learned in Paris” follows the immediate aftermath of Maynard Jackson’s historic election as not only the city’s first black mayor, but the first black mayor of a major Southern city. The play does not center on Jackson himself, however. Playwright Pearl Cleage, who was a speechwriter for Jackson in his ’73 campaign, instead focuses the action on five characters intimately involved in the campaign, and the messy intersections their personal lives inevitably cross at the campaign’s closure.
The vibrant characters would be at home in a classic ’30s screwball comedy: J.P., a highly respected civil rights litigator and confidant of Jackson, who is in the running for city lawyer in the new administration; Anne, J.P.’s new (and much younger) wife, who is carrying on an affair of sorts with John, a city councilor and ranking member of the campaign; Evie, J.P.’s dynamic ex-wife, who has returned to Atlanta unannounced after an extended sojourn through the hippie circles of California; and Lena, a savvy political operative who finds herself in the middle of the ensuing shenanigans.
What I found most impressive about “Paris” was how carefully its social commentary was woven into the larger narrative. It would be quite easy for a play about Maynard Jackson’s election to become stuffy, wordy, historical drama, but in Cleage’s experienced hands, the play is instead a learned, deeply funny and ironic look at the lingering effects of segregation and discrimination, and the dynamic personalities that refused to allow those realities to halt their drive for progress and search for personal fulfillment – as well as the feminist voices that largely defined that progress.
And bringing everything to life is the play’s excellent cast, guided under the watchful eye of director Daniel Bryant. As Evie, Shanesia Davis is all confidence and verve, completely assured of herself and her effect on others; as Lena, Congo Square ensemble member Alexis J. Rogers is a most charming eye of the storm; and as J.P. and John, Darren Jones and Ronnel Taylor make for compelling foils – their romantic bungles are quite entertaining as they vie for Anne, played by a very likable, empathetic Kristin Ellis.
Reviewed by Peter Thomas Ricci
Running through Feb. 7, presented by Congo Square Theatre at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave
Tickets are available by visiting www.congosquaretheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other spectacular area productions is available at the one, the only, the indefatigable www.theatreinchicago.com.