‘Paradise Blue’ Theater Review: A Visit to Detroit’s Black Bottom, Without Ma Rainey

Simone Missick shines in Dominique Morisseau’s August Wilson-inspired drama

Last Updated: May 14, 2018 @ 6:03 PM

It’s hard to escape the comparisons to August Wilson in Dominique Morisseau’s jazz-inflected period drama “Paradise Blue,” part of a trilogy of plays set in different time periods in Morisseau’s native Detroit.

And like Wilson with his award-winning 10-part saga of 20th-century Pittsburgh, Morisseau is drawn both to a piercingly lyrical writing style as well as an acute examination of the plight of her African American characters.

“Paradise Blue,” which opened Monday in a soulful production at Off Broadway’s Signature Theatre, is set in 1949 at a jazz club/boarding house in Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood that Blue (J. Alphonse Nicholson) inherited from his late father and has very nearly run into the ground. (The neighborhood lent its name to a dance that featured in Wilson’s ’20s-set play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”)

Blue is a troubled soul, as talented a musician as he is bullheaded a man, and he hatches an escape plan for himself by selling his Paradise club to the city’s new mayor as part of a gentrification plan to rid the city of its “blight.”

“We the blight he’s talking about,” remarks P-Sam (Francois Battiste), a drummer in the club’s resident band whose livelihood would be threatened by the sale — along with that of piano man Corn (a sturdy Keith Randolph Smith) and Blue’s longtime squeeze and frequent punching bag, Pumpkin (Kristolyn Lloyd).

Pumpkin is a meek bookish type, though she doesn’t remain one for very long. Before you can say “deus ex machina,” a stranger enters the establishment to unsettle all of the characters in turn. Silver is a widow with a mysterious past and an eyebrow-raising stack of bills in her silky body-fitting outfit. As embodied by the remarkable Simone Missick, she seems to have shimmied straight out of a classic noir or a Walter Mosley novel.

If the characters and set-up sound a little stock, Morisseau manages to elevate them with some pointed commentary and poetic turns of phrase. Her writing consistently elevates material that might otherwise seem pat — though Blue himself remains mostly a cipher, the suggestions of mental illness never quite coalescing into a character who holds our interest, let alone our sympathy.

Ruben Santiago-Hudson stages the action, including the musical interludes, with a sure and steady hand — building to a climax that is suitably surprising even if it does not quite feel earned.