Paradise Blue Rivets at The Ensemble Theatre

Dominique Morisseau’s Paradise Blue is now playing at The Ensemble Theatre.
Dominique Morisseau’s Paradise Blue is now playing at The Ensemble Theatre. Photo by Aesthetic Alkhemy
Back in the 1930s and 1940s, a prosperous, predominantly Black community thrived just east of downtown Detroit. By the 1960s, that neighborhood, known as Black Bottom, and its commercial district known as Paradise Valley, had been razed to the ground in the name of urban renewal.

In Dominique Morisseau’s Paradise Blue, now playing over at The Ensemble Theatre, we are transported back to 1949 and a fictious jazz club, owned by the mercurial trumpeter Blue, in a community on the brink.

As the play starts, we’re introduced to a quintet that’s just been reduced to three. As percussionist P-Sam and pianist Corn discuss the sudden ousting of their bass player by Blue, we get the sense that something not right is in the wind. There’s talk about people trying to buy out the Paradise Valley businesses, and P-Sam is worried that Blue might sell and, if he does, that it will cause a domino effect with the surrounding businesses.

It’s soon clear that P-Sam’s got good reason to worry. Where he, Corn and Pumpkin (Blue’s subservient girlfriend) see community and found family, Blue sees his own traumatic past and folks asking for handouts and favors. Just then, the mysterious Silver arrives, with a dead husband in her past and a stack of cash on hand, looking for a room to rent. Blue is convinced that Silver is there to bring trouble to Paradise and in a way, she is. But it soon becomes clear that trouble has been closing in on Paradise Blue long before her arrival.

If you’re familiar with Paradise Blue, part of Morisseau’s Detroit trilogy of plays along with Detroit ’67 and Skeleton Crew, then you know that a common knock against it is that it is a little light on plot – and it is. The strength of the piece is in Morisseau’s dialogue, it’s musicality perfect for a play about jazz, and in its characters, some of which are maybe not as fleshed out on the page as they could be. Though you could say this about any show, with Paradise Blue more so than others, the success or failure of the production lies firmly in the hands of the actors. So, imagine my utter delight at seeing the stacked cast list.

To call the talent assembled for this production all-star is not an overstatement. Just Google some of the names when you get a chance. You’ll find multiple glowing reviews (and a few Houston Press Theater Awards). If anything, a collection of talent like this is enough reason to see a show – any show – period and, in a surprise to absolutely no one, they deliver. Oh boy, do they deliver.

Jason E. Carmichael’s Blue is self-important and gruff, strutting into the club with shades and an attitude. He’s also a man on the edge of a breakdown, which Carmichael plays with wide, watery eyes and an increasingly ragged sense of desperation. It’s in the play’s most nightmarish moments that Carmichael convinces you that yes, this is a man more than willing to deal with the (white) devil if he thinks it can free him from the demons he carries.

It’s worth noting here that set designer Larry Wesley imagines Paradise Blue as shiny and stylish, but warm. It feels like a safe haven, but between Kris Phelps’s lighting and Adrian Washington’s sound designs, we are often reminded of the threat of gentrification knocking on the door, and Blue’s demons already inside the walls.

As Pumpkin, Crystal Rae is the wide-eyed innocent. Naïve to the point of being childlike, and far from self-possessed. Rae embodies a youthful energy and awkwardness, speaking with wide gestures and in starts and stops. Rae’s Pumpkin is often contrasted with Liz Rachelle’s Silver, and their scenes together are easily some of the production’s best.

With a confident drawl, Rachelle is the epitome of “not to be messed with” as Silver. She is vixen-ish, self-assured, and a worthy foil to Blue. She’s mysterious, and Rachelle keeps up that mystery to the very end of the play.

Costume designer Andre Harrington also has a lot of fun with Silver’s looks. Though on point with all the throwbacks to a bygone era – from Blue’s “looking like Sunday on a Tuesday” teal suit to Pumpkin’s dowdy duds – it’s with Silver’s sexy numbers, all the way down to the feather heels that make an appearance that stand out. Highlighted, of course, by Sharon Ransom’s hair and makeup choices, like those era-defining victory curls.

Brandon J. Morgan is the frustrated and suspicious P-Sam. But he is a natural charmer, and slick, too. With Morgan’s great sense of timing and knack for humor, any time he’s on stage is a joy to watch.

In Curtis Von’s hands, Corn seems like a genuinely good dude and it’s impossible not to root for him, particularly as he becomes wrapped up with Silver and stubbornly refuses to entertain the notion of Blue selling the club. You figure a shoe is going to drop on this poor man, you just don’t know which one and hope it’s not both.

All together, and under the guiding hand of director Eileen J. Morris, the cast puts forth a valiant effort. Even all this talent can’t keep you from feeling the bloat of Morisseau’s work, but they’ll drag you through the sloggiest of moments – which are blessedly few and contained mostly to the second half of the first act. And if you let them pull you through, it will be worth it.

At its heart, Paradise Blue works. It works as a look back at a moment in history, personalizing the political, and it works as noir, from its anti-hero and femme fatale to its ending. There are no happy endings to be had here, as in true noir. (Really, we already know that in reality they paved the real-life Paradises and put up a freeway, not to mention a notable white residential district.) But still, the play ends with a bang – a shocking bang at that, one that leaves the crowd not in stunned silence, but buzzing.

The point is, see this show. The moodiness is there, those tell-tale traits of noir – suspicion, anxiety, sexuality, violence, etc. The talent is more than present, both on stage and behind the scenes. This much we can say for sure: Hang in there through those tough stretches and you will be rewarded by The Ensemble Theatre.

Performances are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Sundays through February 26. For more information, call 713-520-0055 or visit $34-$57.
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Natalie de la Garza is a contributing writer who adores all things pop culture and longs to know everything there is to know about the Houston arts and culture scene.