The moment Silver walks through the door of Paradise Blue’s set, we know where we really are. We’re not just in Paradise Valley, the legendary jazz-club strip in Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood. Once Silver, played with glacial grace by Simone Missick, slinks in wearing her tight-fitting widow’s weeds, we see our surroundings for what they are. We’ve slipped out of the real world of 1949 and between the pages of a hard-boiled noir. From here on in, the femmes will be fatale, the men either lovable saps or tortured creeps, and the streets — as Raymond Chandler would have said — will be dark with something more than night.
Paradise Blue is part of Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit trilogy, which includes Detroit ’67 and the 2008-set Skeleton Crew. Taken together, the plays paint a portrait of how the changing city has serially failed its citizens. When owner-trumpeter Blue (J. Alphonse Nicholson) says that he’s got an offer to sell his club to an anti-blight municipal authority, we know from bitter hindsight that he’s talking about the end of his neighborhood’s golden age. His percussionist, P-Sam (Francois Battiste), sees the writing on the wall: Sell one club, the others will follow, and soon there will be a cascade of emptying buildings and declining black ownership. “Just like the mayor say in his campaign — we the blight he talkin’ ’bout,” says a furious P-Sam. And everyone wants Blue to keep the place running. Certainly, his long-suffering girlfriend — and cook/maid/barkeep/manageress — Pumpkin (Kristolyn Lloyd) loves Black Bottom’s community, and piano player Corn (Keith Randolph Smith) has sunk deep roots as well. But it only takes one crack to let the tide in — and the increasingly unhinged Blue is almost more cracks than man.
Morisseau’s ability to exploit the genre applies itself unevenly. Sometimes she’s got noir firmly in her grasp, while at other times (particularly in the final scene), you realize that she hasn’t stage-managed all the necessary motives and confrontations. Her occasional weakness for a pretty line and a pat explanation can nudge moments into a certain maudlin quality. For example, Corn gets saddled with some cheesy stuff about A Love Supreme, which he calls the “perfect note that cleans your sins.” If only Blue could play it, Corn says, he’d find peace. (With Blue in clear mental distress, that seems unlikely.) Since the play up to this point has been doing some nicely complex work around reframing the good-girl/bad-girl cliché, it’s a shame to lapse into a different one — that talent can absolve a man of his violence.
Still, the piece gets significantly better as it goes along, and the production — gorgeously sound-designed by Darron L. West — has its own swing and strut. Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson has his actors linger over their lines, spinning out their tale as lazily as an overhead fan. (Neil Patel’s realistic barroom set does in fact have an overhead fan, and Rui Rita’s light flickering through it does lovely hypnotic work throughout.) When the mysterious Silver — who books a room above the club and then exerts her will over the rest of the characters — saunters up the hall to her bedroom, it takes her fully as long as a jazzman’s solo to walk the length of the stage. She gets into a silk robe; it takes five minutes. She wants to listen to some jazz on her record player; the world moves in a syncopated rhythm with her. In Morisseau’s most perfectly constructed scene, Pumpkin comes under Silver’s spell — a changing enchantment that is sometimes erotic, sometimes feminist and empowering. When Paradise Blue is running smoothly, it smuggles its insights onstage under cover of pulpiness. Its persuasion-by-atmosphere works on poor Pumpkin; it works on the hapless men. In its best moments, it works on the audience as well.