Theater Review: Paradise Blue’s Powerful Grit

Dominique Morisseau’s Paradise Blue — the second installment in the writer’s “Detroit Projects” trilogy and the first production in her current residency at Signature Theatre — is one of those plays that feels, for the most part, powerful when you witness it, and starts to spur more and more questions of character and logic the farther you get from it. That’s not necessarily a dire flaw. The play — which begins with an ominous prologue involving a Chekhov’s gunshot, if not the gun itself — feels fable-like. It’s got the pull of fate to it, an air of moody melodrama that, at least in the moment, helps it gloss over questions of strict behavioral naturalism, of real actions and real consequences, in favor of a lively experimentation with archetypes and genre tropes. In particular, Morisseau is playing with noir, and in Paradise Blue’s most exciting moments, she both digs into our expectations for this kind of smoky, 1940s, damaged-dudes-and-dangerous-dames narrative and overturns them.

The Blue of the title is a tortured prodigy (a simmering J. Alphonse Nicholson, who can really wail on that horn, plays him with a combination of rageful machismo and wild helplessness). Like his father before him, he’s a trumpet player and the owner of the Paradise Club, a once swingin’, now come-down-in-the-world establishment on the downtown strip known as Paradise Valley in the Black Bottom neighborhood of Detroit in 1949. Blue’s place is “one of the original spots,” beams his bandmate, Corn, a bearish sweetheart of a piano player given kindly solidity by Keith Randolph Smith; “Blue like to say Paradise Valley took its name from him.” We eventually discover the gory family trauma that helped to spawn Blue’s many demons, but even in the play’s early scenes, the club owner and bandleader has all the earmarks of troubled genius: pride, impatience, tempestuous mood swings, insecurity, inflexibility, and of course, a gift so great that listeners to his playing think “he’s talkin’ to God and together they answerin’ my prayers.”

At least, so says his girlfriend, the shy, sweet-natured Pumpkin, who spends her days keeping house at the Paradise (the club’s also got a boarding house upstairs) and reciting poetry as she sweeps the floors and brews the coffee. Pumpkin’s not just Blue’s lover; she’s his waitress and his laundress and his cook and his emotional rock and, when the devil is in him, his victim. She’s also, despite the title, the true heart of Paradise Blue.

“The heart of a woman goes forth with the dawn,” Pumpkin muses at the play’s beginning, reading from a book of poems by the Harlem Renaissance writer Georgia Douglas Johnson as she cleans up the bar. Blue might be a genius, but it’s Pumpkin’s going forth that ultimately interests Morisseau. The play’s journey is hers, as Blue’s descent into desperation forces her to discover capacities in herself beyond those of a “go-along gal” who likes “soft words and taking care of folks,” a woman who believes her job is to ease a man’s troubles as much as she can.

As Pumpkin, Kristolyn Lloyd makes lovely, gradual work of that character arc. She’s especially a treat to watch in one sequence where, while changing the linens in one of the rooms upstairs, she pulls a boarder’s black bustier out of a drawer and tries it on over her cardigan, striking a vampy pose in the invisible mirror and playing with the idea of being a sexy, indomitable “spider woman.” Such a woman is the lodger whose lingerie Pumpkin is borrowing. “They call me Silver,” says this stranger when she prowls into the play halfway through Act One. She’s dressed all in black, with a weaponized walk, an irresistible aura of gritty glamour, and a suspiciously dead husband. Blue begrudgingly lets her rent a room (she’s also got plenty of money) but calls her the “black widow.”

Silver saunters right out of a Raymond Chandler novel — on her first entrance, the door of the Paradise swings open for her without her touching it, as if a plot-thickening wind is blowing through the room to announce her arrival. Simone Missick commits fully to type as the silky, smoldering, worldly woman of mystery, but she also brings welcome moments of crass humor and tough-mindedness to the role. She’s not just here to make the eyes of Blue’s bandmates do that cartoon-bulge-out-of-the-head-awooga! thing. Nor is she here simply out of her own ambition, though she does have designs on Blue’s club. Dramatically, Silver’s here to teach Pumpkin a lesson, to model for her another way of walking through the world — to show the go-along gal that there was trouble in Paradise long before any spider woman walked through the door.

“This fella of yours,” Silver asks Pumpkin, “he be good to you?” Pumpkin responds with a kind of automatic docile awe that Blue is special and gifted, but Silver cuts her off cold: “That wasn’t my question.” The uneasy relationship that builds between these two women forms the real core of Paradise Blue, as one pushes the other to take back her power. “You a thinkin’ woman with her own words,” Silver insists. “But you play these mens just the same as me. Make ‘em feel safe so they make you feel safe. But doll, ain’t none of us really safe … You want to keep ailin’ with [Blue]? Or you want it to stop?

We’ve been trained to value stories like Blue’s, stories of haunted, talented protagonists (usually men) who long to escape their traumatic pasts and suffocating surroundings, and who wreak a certain amount of havoc in their pursuit of artistic and personal freedom. But with Silver and Pumpkin, Morisseau flips the script: She gives us a troubled male genius but she doesn’t give him the play. Despite Blue’s talent and despite Morriseau’s own sympathy for the grievous damage that’s been done to him, the story refuses to absolve him of the damage he’s done. It’s a strong stance, especially considering the painfully viable explanations that the characters supply for Blue’s demons: “Blue ain’t a bad man,” sighs Corn. “He just wanna be mighty but the world keep him small. Cost of bein’ Colored and gifted. Brilliant and second class. Make you insane.”

Blue thinks that escaping Black Bottom will mean escaping the holes in his soul. His pain has made him hard, and it’s terrible to listen to him degrade the members of his own community, fellow black men and women that he feels are beneath him: This “low-class” population should be sent “back to the outskirts of the city so the rest of us can finally move on up,” he snarls. In the ultimate betrayal of Black Bottom, Blue’s even plotting to sell his club to the city, under the regime of a bigoted new mayor bent on cleaning up urban “blight,” thereby opening the door for the racist gentrification of his neighborhood.

We the blight he talkin’ ’bout,” snaps the drummer for Blue’s bebop combo, P-Sam (a smart, slick performance by Francois Battiste). P-Sam, who’s got sharp eyes and ambitions of his own, can see his band leader’s treachery coming and can’t forgive Blue for being willing to deliver the Paradise — their home and livelihood — into the hands of “no count crackers that think of me as less than the spilled whiskey on they shoe.” P-Sam wants to save the Paradise. For her own reasons, so does Silver. And in another twist on the conventional story about the One Who Makes It Out, Morisseau shifts her play’s emotional and moral focus to those who are committed to staying. In the end, the play values loyalty over lone wolf-dom, and it exacts a heavy price from Blue for his betrayals.

Without giving away Paradise Blue’s dramatic finish entirely, it’s enough to say that that gunshot makes its way back around, eliciting more than a few gasps from the audience. And it’s this climactic gesture that both resounds powerfully in the instant and becomes increasingly problematic in its echoes. Pumpkin — who’s finally shed her cardigan for a red satin gown and her meek hesitancy for an almost exalted sense of righteous certainty — commits an act of violence that’s clearly framed as both self-defense and a kind of divine mercy. The actors throw themselves wholeheartedly into these climactic moments, doing solid, emotionally connected work even when Morisseau’s script moves toward the neatness and sentiment of melodrama. It’s not their playing of the scene or Santiago-Hudson’s handling of it, which is intense yet measured, that causes cognitive dissonance. It’s the scene itself: Here, Morisseau seems to give in to noir logic — that a beautiful, empowered woman in red who’s arguably in the right can get away with bringing down justice on a man who’s done wrong. But throughout Paradise Blue, Pumpkin has stood for loyalty, kindheartedness, and community: “Every part of this place is who I am,” she tells Blue, speaking of her home in Black Bottom. “It’s killin’ you but it’s keepin’ the rest of us alive.”

As I walked away from Paradise Blue, I couldn’t help thinking that Pumpkin’s liberation — so fascinating and so uniquely centered throughout the rest of the play — in the crucial final scene feels more symbolic than actual. In the real world, the action she takes would risk tearing a deep new hole in the very community she hopes to remain in and save. At the very least, it risks tearing a hole in her (though Silver might argue that such wounds are the necessary cost of freedom). Paradise Blue balances somewhere between a truthful portrait of human suffering, awakening, and transformation in a gritty, changing city, and a genre exercise that obscures details of justification and consequence through a glass of dark glamour. Despite the murky fun of a good noir, I prefer the moments when, outside of archetype, I can see the play’s characters clearly.

Theater Review: Paradise Blue’s Powerful Grit