In Williamstown’s ‘Paradise Blue,’ a high-stakes dilemma set to mournful jazz
WILLIAMSTOWN — The year is 1949, the place is Detroit, and the stakes are high, even mortal, in “Paradise Blue,’’ an intriguing new drama by Dominique Morisseau that is the most fully realized production presented so far this summer at Williamstown Theatre Festival.
Directed with finesse by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and featuring vivid characterizations by a talented and committed cast of five, “Paradise Blue’’ revolves around a decision faced by Blue, the trumpet-playing owner of a jazz club, portrayed by Blair Underwood: Should he accept a lucrative offer for his establishment, dangled as part of the city’s urban renewal policy?
Selling the Paradise Club might enable Blue to outrun the traumatic family history and the personal demons that have made him a volatile, angry man. “I’m choking here,’’ he tells his girlfriend, Pumpkin, beautifully played by Kristolyn Lloyd. “I’m dying here.’’ But a sale of the jazz spot would represent a significant tear in the fabric of Black Bottom, the largely African-American neighborhood where it is located.
This vibrant world premiere of “Paradise Blue’’ is part of “The Detroit Projects,’’ Morisseau’s three-play cycle examining pivotal moments in the history of her hometown. Inspired by August Wilson’s Pittsburgh-centric Century Cycle — which chronicled African-American history in the 20th century through 10 plays, one set in each decade — Morisseau is trying to tell a fuller, deeper story about Detroit than the one that is told by headlines about municipal bankruptcy, abandoned buildings, and population decline.
Morisseau makes clear her view of the destabilizing role that urban renewal policies and “slum clearance” often played, never allowing us to forget the larger social forces at work in “Paradise Blue,’’ the kind that can erode the heart of a city. “We are the ‘blight’ that the mayor is talking about in his campaign,’’ one character says sardonically.
But “Paradise Blue’’ is no tract. Punctuated throughout by jazz interludes, the production often has a stylized, dreamlike quality, its scenes melting into one another like notes of a single song. The members of Santiago-Hudson’s skillful design team (Neil Patel, set; Clint Ramos, costumes; Rui Rita, lights; Darron L. West, sound) work in unison to evoke a very specific time and place, and composers Kenny Rampton and Bill Sims Jr. have written hauntingly mournful trumpet solos for Blue that speak eloquently of loss: personal, cultural, historical.
If Blue does sell the Paradise Club, it would have major ramifications for the other two members of his jazz combo: P-Sam, the voluble and ambitious drummer, played by Andre Holland, and Corn, the good-hearted pianist and voice of wisdom, portrayed by Keith Randolph Smith. P-Sam is in love with Pumpkin and hopes to win her away from Blue.
And then there’s the sultry and mysterious Silver, played by De’Adre Aziza, who rents a room from Blue and takes an interest in his deliberations on the fate of the jazz venue that goes well beyond that of a tenant. With her slow, insinuating walk and sidelong gaze, Silver projects the sexual confidence of a femme fatale out of a ’40s film noir. Rumors start to swirl about this “spider woman’’: that she killed a man, that she has slept with more than 50 men, all of whom disappeared. Blue treats her with unremitting hostility, but Corn is immediately smitten. (Aziza and Smith manage to make a seduction scene between Silver and Corn funny and steamy at the same time.)
As maneuvering — of both the business and romantic kind — unfolds in “Paradise Blue,’’ Santiago-Hudson’s cast rises to each moment given to them by the playwright. Lloyd, excellent throughout as the poetry-loving Pumpkin, reveals the depth of her character’s buried aspirations in one riveting scene. Holland’s portrayal of P-Sam grows steadily deeper as the drummer’s feelings for Pumpkin bring out the best in him.
Aziza brings a compelling stillness to Silver, transcending cliché and suggesting in subtle look or gesture all that Silver has overcome in her life in order to carry herself with such confidence. Underwood, seen last year with Cicely Tyson in “The Trip to Bountiful’’ at Boston’s Cutler Majestic Theatre, captures not just Blue’s volatility but also his broken-on-the-inside quality. As Corn, Smith delivers a master class in how to balance the comic and commanding aspects of a character and make both utterly believable.
When the ending of “Paradise Blue’’ arrives, it proves to be the kind of finale that will be much talked about. So will the play itself, I suspect.
Play by Dominique Morisseau
Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Set, Neil Patel. Costumes, Clint Ramos. Lights, Rui Rita. Sound, Darron L. West. Co-composers, Kenny Rampton and Bill Sims Jr.
Presented by Williamstown Theatre Festival
At: Main Stage, Williamstown, through Aug. 2
Tickets: $65, 413-597-3400, www.wtfestival.org