Baltimore Sun

'Paradise Blue' a soulful, sexy jazz drama at Long Wharf

Freddie Fulton, from left, Leon Addison Brown and Stephen Tyrone Williams in "Paradise Blue" at the Long Wharf Theatre through Dec. 16.

The Dominique Morisseau domination has commenced.

Morisseau is one of the most produced playwrights in the United States this season. All three plays in her “Detroit” trilogy are being done in Connecticut over the next seven months: the ’60s race-riot drama “Detroit ’67” in February at Hartford Stage; the auto-plant saga “Skeleton Crew” in June at Westport Playhouse; and first up, the jazz-club life philosophy lesson “Paradise Blue” at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre, through Dec. 16.


“Paradise Blue” is set in the “Paradise Valley” nightclub row of the real-life African-American neighborhood of Black Bottom, which thrived from the 1920s until urban renewal changed the region in the 1960s.

In the play, a trumpeter named Blue (dour, snappily attired Stephen Tyrone Williams, who did “Gem of the Ocean” at Hartford Stage in 2011) runs a club called the Paradise, a place so well established that it’s said to have given Paradise Valley its name. The building is also a boarding house, run by Blue’s hard-working and demure bookworm girlfriend Pumpkin (Margaret Odette, an easily shocked model of decorum). We don’t see the club in action; the play takes place during daytime downtime in the Paradise’s bar and stage area.

The musicians — bandleader Blue, kindly old pianist Corn (Leon Addison Brown, seen in “The Whipping Man” at Hartford Stage in 2012), and hotheaded young drummer P-Sam (Freddie Fulton, getting the show’s biggest laughs) — gather to rehearse, but mostly chat about women and money-making schemes, while Pumpkin handles myriad chores and gives impromptu poetry recitals. There’s a charming sight gag where Pumpkin is so engrossed in her reading that she continuously spills the dustpan she’s holding in the same hand as the book.

Stephen Tyrone Williams toots his horn in "Paradise Blue."

The plot goes into overdrive with the entrance of Silver (Carolyn Michelle Smith, whose hips and shoulders are in constant motion), a stranger in town who takes a room at the Paradise and ratchets up the dreams, desires and jealousies of the denizens there.

Like playwright Morisseau, director Awoye Timpo leans into the cliches, but also defies them. Much of “Paradise Blue” plays like a Hollywood movie, and looks like a colorful fashion shoot (the elegant gowns and suits designed by Lex Liang), but it is also grounded in the real world. There are references to President Truman’s Housing Act (slum-clearance legislation which directly affected minority neighborhoods in major cities) and Detroit’s automobile industry.

“Paradise Blue” also gazes into the future: a philosophical dialogue about “a love supreme” can’t help but conjure up thoughts of John Coltrane’s landmark 1964 album of that name.

Yet this play-with-trumpet-solos (with Stephen Tyrone Williams lip-synching to the eerie sound mix designed by Daniel Kluger) is set squarely in the late 1940s, a time of growth and change. Its tone is set with the then-innovative recordings of saxophonist Lester Young and discussions of Charlie “Bird” Parker.

Blue is a second-generation jazz musician and club owner. He feels that the way he relates to both his trumpet and his club are changing. He’s not always winning the battles — he can’t hit high enough notes, or assure a future for his business.


Comparisons to the work of August Wilson are valid. “Paradise Blue” is a social drama set in an African-American neighborhood at a pivotal time in 20th-century American history. It uses music and rhythm as a way to bridge the dialogue, and makes good use of traditional melodramatic devices (waving a weapon, stealing a man, hiding a business deal) and even supernatural elements to move its plot forward. But Morisseau has different axes to grind than Wilson did. Hers is a younger, more feminist, more sociological viewpoint. Besides, Detroit is a very different city than Wilson’s Pittsburgh.

Yu-Hsuan Chen's set design for "Paradise Blue."

Morisseau has a knack for showing the insecurities and anxieties of blustery men. She also depicts women as hardened and strong-willed, even when outwardly they may appear to be subservient or coquettish. The men may deride Silver as a “spider,” particularly one of the Black Widow variety, but Silver gets some scenes with Corn and Pumpkin where she gets to explain herself a little.

“Paradise Blue” starts with a sultry jazz refrain and ends with a bang. It’s cool and soulful but also loud and sexy. The seamy underbelly of a magical place is nevertheless magical.

PARADISE BLUE by Dominique Morisseau runs through Dec. 16 at the Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Dr., New Haven. Performances are Tuesday at 7 p.m., Wednesday at 2 and 7 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. 203-787-4282,