Melvin Twigg Mason
It was a full house for this showing of Paradise Blue, the first offering of Karamu House’s 2019-2020 season. This second play of a 3-part anthology entitled “The Detroit Projects” was written by celebrated playwright Dominique Morisseau and directed by Justin Emeka.
It’s the story of Blue, an African-American jazz club owner in the late 1940s. He wants to build an entrepreneurial legacy in his Black Bottom neighborhood of Detroit, but first Blue has to deal with his discontent band members, his soft-spoken “go-along” girlfriend, and a mysterious female visitor named Silver. Distracted by the demons of his childhood past, Blue must decide whether to fight for his dream or to accept the city’s imminent buyout of his beloved Paradise Club.
A sterling performance is turned in by just about everyone in the 5-member ensemble cast, particularly Latecia Wilson as Pumpkin, Blue’s love interest and waitress/cook at the Paradise Club. The shy wisdom and almost “country” charm she gives her character is quite endearing. To listen to Pumpkin recite poetry leaves you either grimacing or speechless; maybe both.
Dyrell Barnett (Blue) is well-spoken, well-dressed, and believable, as is Drew Pope (P-Sam) with his big-rimmed hat and smooth-talking ways. The would-be antagonist (Silver), played brilliantly by Nina Domingue, shows us a little bit of a misunderstood soul inside her femme fatale demeanor. And Darryl Tatum (Corn) fills out the comic relief quite well throughout the play.
The so-called “musically-infused” production was not as musically soaked as one might anticipate, although I did appreciate that, at times, I couldn’t tell whether or not Barnett was actually playing his trumpet live or not (kudos to Barnett, Emeka, and sound designer Rich Ingraham.)
Scenic Designer Richard Morris, Jr.’s easy, well-dressed space including a small, barren platform with a lone trumpet served as the inside of the Paradise Club. The opening scene was difficult to follow because some of the actors raced through their words, particularly Tatum, who unfortunately had key lines and explanations throughout the play that were lost in translation (e.g., “love supreme”). Though not very much about this production, its costuming, or its props took me back to 1949 (except for some of the lingo used), the play was nonetheless entertaining, especially as the last act careened towards its fateful conclusion.
The show has a surprising ending, on several levels, but overall I found Paradise Blue to be a satisfying ride; or as one character concludes, “no more pain…for e’rybody!”