Chicago Theatre Review
A Forgotten Time and Place
Paradise Blue – Timeline Theatre
In 1949 Detroit there existed an island in the city called the Black Bottom. It was an enclave of African-American nightclubs, a neighborhood where jazz and blues music flowed and flourished. With the election of a new mayor, the survival of this artists’ oasis was being threatened, as buyouts promised to “clean up the blight.” Of course, everyone could read between the lines. They understood that this was actually a ploy to remove all African-Americans and their ghetto of nightclubs in order to make the eastern side of Detroit whiter.
Paradise is one of the jazz clubs in this district. Run by a volatile, perhaps emotionally ill owner named Blue, the establishment is teetering under much discontent. The bass player has just quit—or was fired—and now the jazz quartet has been reduced to a trio. Blue, the club’s fiery trumpet player, is hellbent on transforming his beautiful, subservient young wife, Pumpkin, into a crowd-drawing chanteuse. He’s forced his talented pianist, Corn, into working with her until she’s good enough for a Friday night opening. P-Sam, meanwhile is angry with Blue for letting their bass player depart without replacing him. He also knows that the grass is greener, along with the money, at the competing nightclubs, and now he’s also threatening to quit.
Into this scene enters Silver, a sexually smoldering young woman with her own agenda. She’d like to seduce all the men at Paradise, but she’s also interested in purchasing the club for herself. The local government has offered $10,000, but Silver is offering more. But Blue, who’s carrying on the musical tradition begun by his deceased father, is belligerently refusing all offers, least of all from this tough, enterprising woman. As the second act races to the finish line, the stakes become raised to the tipping point. We watch an emotionally anguished man, an abuser of women and everyone he considers his underlings, battling his own personal demons with no solution possible. The last seconds of this drama are bound to shock theatergoers with its unexpected finality.
For this Midwestern premiere of Dominique Morisseau’s new play, whose “Sunset Baby” was such a big hit last season, TimeLine has brought in talented director Ron OJ Parson to guide this five-member cast. He’s also tapped Orbert Davis, the co-founder and artistic director of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, to compose an original score for this play that’s perfection. A multilevel environmental scenic design and atmospheric lighting is the work of Brian Sidney Bembridge. Christine Pascual’s period costumes offer appropriate extensions of each character.
Everyone in this talented cast is wonderful. The male cast is headed by Al’Jaleel McGhee, as Blue, and the play rides the waves of his emotional journey. McGhee’s explosive anger is tempered, at times, by his expert artistry on the trumpet, a welcome respite to his character’s rage. Ronald L. Conner is likable as Corn, the pianist with heart. His relationships with the other characters, particularly the ladies, is sweet, sensitive and caring. Charles Andrew Gardner plays P-Sam (the P is for percussionist) with the kind of energy spurts and emotional outbursts attributed to youth. His character is kind, respectful and even romantic, to his boss’ put-upon wife, but he sees Blue and Silver as his adversaries.
The women are the real strength of this five-hander. As Pumpkin, Kristin E. Ellis is lovely, sweet, charming and the most likable character of the lot. She puts up with a lot, including Blue’s angry fits and physical abuse, without ever once considering leaving him. Her final act of defiance is a long time coming, but audiences will understand commiserate with this poor young woman. Tyla Abercrumbie, as Silver, exudes a strong sexuality and absolute power the moment she strides into the Paradise Club. We immediately know that this mysterious woman is going to become Blue’s adversary, but her complicated backstory is far more interesting and intriguing than almost anything we actually see in this drama. An entire play about this character would be exciting. We also wonder where Miss Silver will end up following the final moments of Ms. Morisseau’s play.
This playwright’s new drama is a look at a forgotten time and place. It paints a portrait of Detroit as a big city on the brink of change. Gentrification was the new term for the destruction of an ethnic group’s comfortable neighborhood, with the end result being more white supremacy. The anger and frustration felt in this play, particularly by Blue, is understandable; however, at two and a half hours, it just takes far too long, with a lot of slow, uneventful moments. Some of the mysterious black widow spider images, the references to magic and voodoo and a feeling that ghosts haunt this club all feel contrived. The play sometimes reads like a Tennessee Williams drama, particularly with the characters of Silver, Pumpkin and Corn. Blue even comes off as a kind of Stanley Kowalski character. But, despite the inclusion of a good deal of poetry, this drama simply isn’t quite as lyrical.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 26-July 23 by TimeLine Theatre Company, 615 W. Wellington Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-281-8463, extension 6, or by going to www.timelinetheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.