Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

July 27, 2015

Paradise Blue

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, MA
through Aug. 2, 2015
By Bernadette Johnson

It’s 1949, the place, Blackbottom, a densely-populated Detroit neighborhood where African-American-owned businesses, nightclubs and theaters, which had experienced a growth-spurt in the ’30s and ’40s, are beginning to feel the encroachment of urban renewal. The once-vibrant music scene faces extinction. Blue, the owner of Paradise and trumpet lead in the club’s band has lost “soul” and is ready to sell out. Standing in the wings ready to save the club and its legacy are percussionist P-Sam and a newcomer to the scene, the sultry Silver (De’Adre Aziza).

Neil Patel’s moody set is a partitioned club/bedroom with freestanding doorways and lighting by Rui Rita directing attention from one space to the other.

Initially, the production lacks a bit of momentum as P-Sam (Andre Holland) and pianist Corn (Keith Randolph Smith) discuss the club’s shaky future and Blue’s seeming indifference, and Pumpkin (Kristolyn Lloyd), barmaid/cook/Blue’s girl, later tagged a “go-along girl”, and “prissy little thing,” recites memorized poetry.

Blair Underwood (Blue) leaves no doubt that his character feels the “demons closing in.” Underwood is a strong presence with a determined stride and troubled manner. His anger and frustration are genuine, especially when he picks up his blues horn, and struggles with reaching the pure notes that elude him. He lashes out at everyone, his rage comes to a climax in a fight scene with Holland and Randolph Smith (great direction by Thomas Schall).

Aziza is sultry and seductive as the enigmatic Silver, who leaves Corn and P-Sam mystified and entranced, Blue suspicious, and Pumpkin scandalized but curious. Randolph Smith is wide-eyed and mesmerized in a delightful bedroom scene between him and the seductive Aziza. Lloyd’s performance is spot-on as Pumpkin comes out of her shell and finds her voice. Her discovery of a gun in Silver’s belongings sets the scene for an ultimate confrontation.

Dominique Morisseau’s “Paradise Blue,” the middle play in a three-part history-based series, laments the “slum clearance” that led to the destruction of the Blackbottom neighborhood and the Paradise Valley cultural district. Who were the victims in this saga? These were black musicians struggling to earn a living while yet saving their “soul.”