In Dominique Morisseau’s Paradise Blue, set in a Detroit jazz club in 1949, the musical giants invoked include two saxophonist/composers. One is Charlie Parker, the bebop pioneer who was felled by heroin, booze and personal tragedy and died at 34, while trying to get his life and music back on track after a stay in a mental hospital. The other, John Coltrane, succumbed to cancer at 40, though by then his prolific creativity and restless spiritual searching had already produced classics such as A Love Supreme—a work cited in Morrisseau’s play to suggest the kind of epic that Blue, the gifted but tortured trumpeter who owns the Paradise Club, is fumbling towards.
In fact, Coltrane, who isn’t mentioned by name, didn’t release Supreme until 1965; his career didn’t even take off in earnest till the 1950s. The reference is purposeful anachronism; when Blue’s pianist, a gregarious fellow called Corn, says “Love Supreme,” he’s trying to encourage or soothe Blue, who’s struggling in art and life. Corn is also alluding to past despair: “That’s what he was lookin’ for and never found,” Corn says, referring to Blue’s dad, another brilliant trumpeter—who eventually went mad and killed Blue’s mom.
The fine line between genius and insanity is hardly the only well-worn concern informing Blue, the second play in Morisseau’s The Detroit Project trilogy. The third installment, Skeleton Key, which follows auto workers confronting a decaying industry in that city, had its New York debut last year. Blue arrives nearly three years after its world premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and also considers how challenges within a changing community are exacerbated by racial anxiety and conflict.
The Paradise Club sits in a neighborhood formerly known as Black Bottom—home to Paradise Alley, a once-thriving hub of business and entertainment—where these tensions are being heightened by gentrification. Blue, coolly ambitious when in his right mind, has thoughts of selling the club and seeking richer terrain somewhere further removed from the trauma of his past. As the play opens, he’s just lost a bassist who wanted his pay upfront, and his drummer, P-Sam—now effectively out of a job until a replacement is found—is seething. “If you don’t like it…then there go the door,” Blue tells him, inserting a notorious epithet Blue applies to members of his community he views as not sufficiently resourceful.
Then along comes a woman—or a spider, as other characters come to refer to Silver, the mysterious stranger who slinks into the Paradise one day like a femme fatale out of a noirish B-movie. Dressed in shape-hugging black and pacing the stage with an almost cartoonish languor, the striking Simone Missick plays the “black widow,” as Silver is also called—several of her exes seem to have disappeared—to the hilt. She’s a too-perfect foil to Blue’s demure, devoted, poetry-reciting girlfriend, Pumpkin, made diligently wholesome (she can’t even swear) and credibly long-suffering in Kristolyn Lloyd’s performance.
But Silver apparently hasn’t come for Blue’s body, or even his money, necessarily, though it soon emerges she wants to buy the club. The trumpet player’s tormented soul, already wracked by demons, may be her target, or at least that prospect is dangled as the play moves with increasing somberness (references to “pipe dreams” evoke a certain O’Neill tragedy being revived nearby) towards a conclusion that viewers may alternately find haunting and a copout.
Clichés about women and artists are explored and exploited along the way. If Blue is lacking in fresh insights, it compels us as a character study, thanks in no small part to Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s robust and sensitive direction of a solid cast. Keith Randolph Smith’s Corn is a standout, a bear of a man who exudes simple decency and empathy; Francois Battiste’s stubborn and wily P-Sam offers a fine contrast, and his own tender notes.
As Blue, J. Alphonse Nicholson brings charisma and poignance to a character who is as vexing as he is vexed. “Blue like things his way cuz that’s the only way he understand,” says Pumpkin, who ends up finding her own voice, quite literally, along the way. The lessons in Blue are hard, and if not always satisfying, they leave plenty of room for debate after the curtain falls.
Paradise Blue opened May 14, 2018, at Signature Center City Center and runs through June 10. Tickets and information: signaturetheatre.org