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Set in 1949, Dominique Morisseau’s 2015 play Paradise Blue is part of her “Detroit Cycle,” a trilogy of tragedies about the Detroit Black community. Chronologically the first in the cycle, Paradise Blue looks back at what was perhaps the most hopeful of the three eras she explores – the other two plays, Detroit 67 and Skeleton Crew are set, respectively, on the eve of the 1967 race riots and at the start of the 2008 Great Recession. But here, as in the other two works, hope and opportunity function primarily as a means to expose the deep structural racism that overdetermines her characters’ dreams and aspirations, no matter their talent, drive, ambition, or determination.

The story of Paradise Blue centers on the Paradise Club, a jazz joint in the center of Paradise Valley, which, with an adjacent neighborhood called Black Bottom, formed a thriving Black community in Detroit in the first half of the twentieth century. The club’s owner is Blue (Rafael Jordan), a jazz trumpet player who inherited the storied venue from his father, Clyde Sr., who was likewise a gifted musician. Both were cursed with what their jazz pianist friend Corn (Wali Jamal) describes as “the cost of bein’ colored and gifted. Brilliant and second class. Make you insane.” As the play opens, the restless, emotionally labile Blue is considering selling his land to the City of Detroit, which – under its new mayor, Albert Cobo – is buying Black-owned property in order to “get rid of the blight in the city” (Paradise Valley and Black Bottom were, in fact, purchased by the city and bulldozed to make room for I-375 in the late 1950s). This is unwelcome news to the club’s percussionist Sam (Monteze Freeland, in a standout performance) as well as to Blue’s girlfriend Pumpkin (Melva Graham); both understand immediately the negative domino effect that such a sale would have, not only on the neighborhood, but also, and especially, on their own lives. Into this scenario steps the mysterious Silver (Eunice Woods), a woman with cash, sex appeal, and a murky background. She too has her sights set on buying the club, and seems ready to charm – or ruthlessly manipulate – her way to her goals. Her intrusion into this small community brings about unexpected changes, primarily in Corn and Pumpkin, the two characters who have arranged their wellbeing principally around their capacity to “go-along.”

Rafael Jordan as Blue. Photo Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

In the City Theatre production, directed by Kent Gash, there is also a sixth character: Edward E. Haynes, Jr.’s set, which pulsates with Blue’s demons through Jason Lynch’s moody lighting design as well as through some startling special effects. The world of 1949 Detroit is masterfully evoked in Susan Tsu’s precisely observed costume design, and original music by Theron Brown gives a taste of mid-century motown jazz. 

We don’t, unfortunately, hear nearly enough music in this play; but I suspect that’s intentional. Music is what sustains these characters; music “opens up the gates of heaven.” But here, as in the other two plays of the cycle, Morisseau seems more interested in exploring the systemic forces that keep those gates closed. Important as music is to her characters, her stories are as often about the way history has silenced their music as they are about its power to lift them up.