In a dimly lit, smoky bar, a lone trumpet player plays a soulful solo and sets the tone for an evening in Paradise, a club mainstay in the Black Bottom neighborhood of Detroit in 1949. Dominque Morriseau’s noir play, “Paradise Blue” had it’s West Coast premiere this week at the Geffen Playhouse, the first play back on their mainstage. Blue is that lone trumpeter and owner of the club and boarding house which he runs with the help of his girlfriend, Pumpkin, who cleans, cooks and does laundry. The Club is a home for her as well as Blue’s band members. But a new mayor has promised to clear out “the blight” and gentrification has come knocking on their door. Blue sees this as a way out, a way to escape his personal demons, but to Pumpkin and musicians Corn and P-Sam, it feels like a betrayal of their history and way of life.
The play is not necessarily a thriller but does have a healthy dose of intrigue and suspense as we watch each character navigate the tenuous situation. When a mysterious, sultry widow rents a room and sets her sights on piano player Corn and the club itself, tensions only mount, especially between Blue and well, everyone else. He wants Pumpkin to go to Chicago with him and start fresh while drummer P-Sam wants her to stay with him and is looking to find a way to buy the club himself.
But Blue is a tortured man and it’s getting harder for Pumpkin to reach him. As gifted as he is, his demons may get the best of him. As Corn says, “colored and gifted. Brilliant and second class. Make you insane.” But will Pumpkin, who dreamily reads poetry by Harlem Renaissance writer Georgia Douglas Johnson, go down with him or “go forth with the dawn”. The widow, Silver, stirs up something in her, perhaps a courage she didn’t know she had.
Shayna Small gives the “go-along gal” Pumpkin an earthy, sweetness that one imagines Blue finds so appealing. She has good chemistry with Wendell B. Franklin who gives a powerful, menacing performance as the tempestuous Blue. His scenes with P-Sam are among the most intense and Alani iLongwe infuses the drummer with passion and slick charisma that’s through the roof. John Earl Jelks brings an earnest authenticity and steadiness to Corn, the longtime friend of Blue who tries to smooth his edges. Tyla Abercrumbie is a revelation as Silver, who stops the show with her walk alone. She oozes sensuality with a smooth, husky voice while conveying a depth of hard earned wisdom.
Paradise Blue invites us into the world of these compelling, complicated people, richly embodied by this impressive cast, as they struggle to stay true to their identity and culture while reaching for opportunities that come their way. But the way is not always clear and sometimes the enemy comes from within.
Paradise Blue is presented by arrangement with Concord Theatricals on behalf of Samuel French, Inc. Written by Dominique Morisseau Directed by Stori Ayers. Runs through December 12, 2021.
Gil Cates Theater at Geffen Playhouse 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90024. Tickets available in person at the Geffen Playhouse box office, by phone at 310.208.2028 or online at www.geffenplayhouse.org. Fees may apply. Currently, children under 12 years of age will not be admitted. Proof of vaccination and masks are required – additional policy details can be found at www.geffenplayhouse.org/plan/reopening/. Rush tickets for each day’s performance are made available to the general public two hours before showtime at the box office. $35.00 General/$15.00 Student.