Domenique Morisseau Celebrates Black Women’s Wisdom
by Lynne Stevens
Domenique Morisseau takes a stylish look at the destruction of Detroit’s Black neighborhoods, brilliantly depicting the evolution of Black women’s insight, under fire. In “Paradise Blue,” two women stand for the heart of the black community. While Detroit is being raped by “urban renewal,” women see the truth and stand up for Black Bottom and Paradise Valley.
Scenic Designer Stephen C. Jones has chosen an old-fashioned wooden bar and a few tables to depict a tiny neighborhood jazz club in 40s Detroit. Opposite, a bed with a brightly colored patchwork quilt will see a lot of action later–under the lyrical direction of Dawn Monique Williams.
Naive Pumpkin (demure Anna Marie Sharpe) is reciting “The Heart of a Woman” by Harlem Renaissance poet Georgia Douglas Johnson. When the owner of the club Blue (tortured Titus VanHook) appears, it is clear her heart belongs to him. But angry Blue treats her like the help, making us wonder what’s in it for her.
Black Bottom has lost its once vibrant energy. Those who cannot make a go of it are selling out to the highest bidder. The mayor wants to tear down the Black community and gentrify their homes, clubs, and property. It’s a typical 50s scam—look at the Fillmore in SF.
Stubborn Blue wants it his way, while his band-mates squabble over their futures. Blue keeps them in the dark, cutting out his friends P-Sam (mesmerizing Kenny Scott), the drummer, and Corn (endearing Michael J. Asberry), the pianist. We share their frustration.
Moody Blue persists in trying to hit the perfect note on his trumpet, his “love supreme” note, according to sympathetic Corn. As Corn, Asberry plays the peacemaker trying to soothe Blue’s anger. Scott and Asberry turn in moving performances as Blue’s battling pals in PARADISE.
Morisseau also brilliantly depicts the evolution of Black women’ s confidence. While Pumpkin is pouring coffee and dishing up scrambled eggs, P-Sam tries to appreciate Pumpkin’s poetry and flirts with her. Touchingly, confused Sam cannot understand why she stays with Blue, who physically and emotionally abuses her. Scott hits all the right notes.
In contrast to Pumpkin, a sultry and seductive Black woman unsettles their world. The newcomer Silver (audacious Rolanda D. Bell) has the kind of walk that makes men’s heads swivel. Although she’s flirtatious, her attitude says, “Don’t mess with me.” Silver has a strong woman’s life lessons to teach naïve Pumpkin!
Although Pumpkin is shocked by Silver, she is drawn to Silver’s liberated life. Silver, a tough, experienced woman, refuses to take aggression or attitude from any man. Pumpkin, a “go along girl,” just does not get the message…yet.
Costume Designer Maggie Morgan has done a superb job with beautiful 40s fedoras, lingerie, sweaters, and shoes—perfect for each character.
These Fabulous Five actors bring alive a time most of us have only read about. But look around your town. It’s still happening. “Paradise Blue” poetically depicts how Black women have struggled to get respect and save their cities. Morisseau has written a beautiful evocation of Jazz, exploitation, and Black women. A must see.
“Paradise Blue” by Dominique Morisseau, directed by Dawn Monique Williams, music composed by Gregory Robinson, at Aurora Theatre Company. Info: AuroraTheatre.org – to February 26, 2023.
Cast: Anna Marie Sharpe, Titus VanHook, Michael J. Asberry, Kenny Scott, and Rolanda D. Bell.
Banner photo: Rolanda D. Bell, Titus VanHook, Kenny Scott, Anna Marie Sharpe, and Michael J. Asberry. Photos: Kevin Berne