Encore Michigan

Paradise Blue at Detroit Public explores the sounds and sorrows of Detroit’s colorful past

Review October 01, 2019 David Kiley

DETROIT, Michigan–When Silver, played by Andrea Patterson, swaggers and struts her way into The Paradise Club in the Black Bottom section of Detroit in Dominique Morriseau’s Paradise Blue, we could get the idea pretty quick that she is the one who is going to bring trouble to the story.

After all, the story starts with some strains from the trumpet of our title character, Blue (Brian Marable), followed by a gunshot. Then, as the story unfolds as a lookback, we are left to wonder who just got shot. When Silver arrives, it is reminiscent of Bernard Malamud’s “Memo” in The Natural: Beautiful, dangerously “hippsy” in her walk and seemingly the perfect woman to have something to do with an unwelcome gunshot.

But not everyone is what they seem in Black Bottom.

Morriseau has written a trilogy of plays about Detroit–Detroit ’67, Skeleton Crew and Paradise Blue. The Detroit Public Theatre, on whose artistic board Morriseau sits, has produced all three now.

This one, set in 1949, captures the flavor of a vibrant black music culture in a section of Detroit that stretched from the Detroit River North to Grand Boulevard. The year of our story comes following the election of Albert Cobo to the Detroit Mayor’s mansion. Cobo had been City Treasurer since the Depression years, and ran on a platform of keeping black residents from “invading” white neighborhoods. He was very much the Trump of his day.

He engineered a public housing policy designed to keep black families bottled up in a few neighborhoods. And in what became a successful attempt to clear out Black Bottom and the “Paradise Valley” sections he was eyeballing for development, including the construction of Lafayette Park, hotels and office buildings, he offered owners of black-owned businesses like Blue’s club, and many more like it, $10,000 to clear out.

Blue is flanked by drummer P-Sam (Henri Franklin), piano man Corn (Will Bryson) and his girlfriend Pumpkin (Carolette Phillips), a bookish, sensitive “go-along” girl who is tantalized by Blue’s trumpet talent and sensitive soul enough to put up with his frequent man-handling of her.

Corn, P-Sam, Pumpkin, and then Silver all want to keep the club in tact and defy the new Mayor’s edict to clear out the “blight” of rundown homes and black-owned businesses. Silver has a pile of cash from where we aren’t quite sure. They understand that Cobo’s issue is not with buildings. The blight is the black folk themselves. Blue, tormented by the domestic abuse of his mother by his father and his father’s suicide, is far more transactional and ready to make something like a Faustian bargain with Cobo and the city. It isn’t knowledge he is seeking if he agrees to sell his club out from under his bandmates and Pumpkin, but a hopeful distance from his torment–out of the neighborhood and club where his father played before him.

Mr. Marable ably plays Blue rough and all-business. He’s an artist whose talent is deserting him. The notes he plays on his horn are not smooth as they once were. He can’t find the pitch, the range or even a clear bend of a note. A horn, maybe perhaps more so than most musical instruments, is associated with internal clarity, focus and balance. As any trumpeter can attest, playing is more likely to be impacted by what is going on in their personal life, compared with that of a piano player or guitarist. Great trumpet playing seems to literally spring from the player’s heart, as well as the lungs. And it’s all connected.

Morriseau is a clever writer and gifted with her dialogue about 97% of the time. The banter between Blue, Corn and P-Sam, and between Corn and P-Sam, for example, is as perfectly written as David Mamet’s about desperate real-estate salesmen in “Glengarry Glen Ross.” She nails the urban conversational rhythms of men “shooting shit” at one another, and the actors are superb at delivering it. Only occasionally, especially, with a couple of speeches by Silver and Pumpkin, does the dialogue get stiff as the playwright uses those characters to convey information about the time and what is going on the city.

One can’t help but see the obvious–that these are characters defined in their world by their color rather by their talent or capacity for humanity: Blue, Silver, Pumpkin, even Corn. The only one who is not is P-Sam, who is the strongest voice for ignoring Cobo and defending his home and way of life. Mr. Franklin does an excellent job of delivering on his character’s strength, and vulnerabilities. He’s also the most vocal about his disgust of the white world he will never fit into as he bristles about playing in white clubs, “smilin’ like I’m just happy to be entertainin’ these no-count crackers that think of me as less than the spilled whiskey on they shoe.” He is the disrespected drum solo in the act.

Directed by Goldie Patrick, Paradise Blue is not a perfect play. The resolution at the end when we find out justy who gets shot is not totally satisfying in the arc of the story. Morriseau, though, gives us a few head-fakes down the homestretch of the play to make us wonder who gets shot and for what.

Monika Essen cleverly created a two story set, by putting Silver’s room over the club behind a painting of club-life in Detroit that the actors slide from side to side a handful of times in the play. Michaela Tanksley’s costumes capture the time perfectly. Lighing is done by John D. Alexander. Mikaal Sulaiman does sound design. Pegi Marshall handles props. Though the actors do not play instruments, Mr. Patrick and Music Consultant Trunino Lowe make it so we hardly notice.

Paradise Blue is not frozen in 1949. It’s not a timepiece. The trials and pain of gentrification are roaring today in Detroit as schemes come and go to displace black families who have hung onto family homes in the city for decades as the city crumbled around them. Thousands upon thousands of houses and buildings have been knocked down. There are still thousands more the city and financial interests would like to level to make way for further renaissance in Detroit.

The street lights are back on in Detroit, and they are wired to support cameras that watch our every move and allow cars to drive themselves. Money is coming in from all over, and it is being spread around neighborhoods in the hopes that it will fertilize new-business seedlings as the city figures out what to do with an urban footprint designed to hold a million people, but with less than half that in the city confines.

Paradise Blue reminds us that Detroit has a texture all its own, a sound all its own. Both are created by people. And if we don’t take care of all the colors that we find in the city in all the people who have come anew and in those who have never left, we’ll just have a city we could find anywhere in the world rather than the one that is uniquely Detroit.

The city has a heart. And it should not be traded or sold. It should be respected and built upon.

Week of 2/17/2020

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