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Monday
May282018

‘PARADISE BLUE”- SELLING OUT COMES WITH A PRICE

 

Kristolyn Lloyd and J. Alphonse Nicholson are not having a happy moment.

 

HENRY EDWARDS - New York - May 19, 2018

“One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn't going to go off. It's wrong to make promises you don't mean to keep," Chekhov said famously.

Dominique Morisseau’s “Paradise Blue” at Signature Center’s Linney Courtyard Theatre jumps the gun on the great playwright. 

When the lights come up, we see a trumpeter lift his instrument to his mouth and begin to play when a gunshot suddenly goes off. We don’t know who fired the weapon or ; nor do who got shot. And let’s not think about motive. And since the play is structured as a flashback, we’re not going to obtain any answers until the two-act play draws to a conclusion.

By then, Obie and Steinberg Playwright Award winner Morisseau has utilized so many different styles and introduced so many ideas, you may not recall the mysterious shooting that occurred two-and-a-half hours ago.

Either way, the identity of the assailant and the victim are so surprising and unlikely, you will leave the theatre bewildered, astonished, or both.

Morisseau, a native of Detroit, cites August Wilson as the inspiration for her trilogy, “The Detroit Project.”

Wilson was a native son of Pittsburgh and his brilliant ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle chronicles the broad African-American experience by placing each (except one) of his efforts in Pittsburgh during a different decade of the 20th century.

Morisseau’s “The Detroit Project” sets each of her three plays in Motor City during a different decade.

“Detroit ’67” takes place during five July days of the infamous 1967 Detroit riots;  “Skeleton Crew” is set in the break room of Detroit’s last exporting auto factory in 2008 at the height of the Great Recession.

 “Paradise Blue,” the second in the series, is making its New York debut after a 2015 world premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

 The production launches the playwright’s Signature Residency, providing her with three premieres over the next five years.

 “Paradise Blue” is set in 1949 in the Paradise Club, a shabby bar and jazz club with an upstairs rooming house located on the downtown strip Paradise Valley in the small African-American community of Black Bottom.

Once known as Detroit’s Harlem, Paradise Valley played host to music icons like Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald in the 1940s.

In 1949, the club, indeed all of Black Bottom, is in danger of extinction as incoming mayor Albert Cobo is a bigot with plans to bulldoze and then gentrify the neighborhood. Not only will the results force residents from their homes but also destroy the location as a haven for African-Americans.

Trumpeter/composer/arranger Kenny Rampton's original and swinging jazz score leads off both acts and both his music and the grungy look of Neil Patel’s stage design suggest the moody, dark and dramatic trappings of film noir. But femmes fatales, hard-boiled gumshoes and antiheroes fated to die are not exactly what you get at the outset.

The Paradise Club clearly has seen better days, and Rui Rita’s lighting is so dim, you will have to squint.  We will also able to make out a large overhead sign running from one side to the other ringed with electric bulbs that shout PARADISE.

Like his father before him, Blue (a super intense J. Alphonse Nicholson), is a trumpet player and the owner of the faded club. The musician fronts a quartet whose sidemen include the drummer P-Sam (smooth, self-confident, hot headed Francois Battiste) and piano player Corn (gentle giant Keith Randolph Smith), an overweight, middle-aged widower pining for his deceased wife.

To Sam’s dismay, the temperamental Blue has recently fired the band’s bassist, reducing the Black Bottom Quartet to an unemployed trio.

Sam’s got it right. Blue is a real piece of work, difficult, proud, impatient, moody, insecure and inflexible, and a terrific player.

Corn, a major conciliator, blames racism for Blue’s problematical personality. “Blue ain’t a bad man,” he volunteers. “He just wanna be mighty but the world keep him small. Cost of bein’ colored and gifted. Brilliant and second class. Make you insane.”

It may just be Corn’s conjecture, but in reality, Blue is trapped in the grip of haunting memories of his ill-fated mother and psychotic father and the awful end of their lives. As a result, the trumpeter is slowly losing his talent and his mind.

Audiences expect the jazz artists that inhabit stories about them to cause one problem after another in their pursuit of artistic and personal freedom.

Think “Bird,” “Mo’ Better Blues,” “Sweet and Lowdown” and "Round Midnight.”

In each case, your sympathy for the troubled artist never falters. But Blue is so temperamental and harsh, it’s not long before you stop caring about him.

The drummer’s got it right, Blue is a real piece of work: difficult, proud, impatient, moody, insecure, and inflexible, but he can also wail.

“Blue ain’t a bad man,” sighs Corn excusing Blue’s difficult personality as the price a black artist pays in a racist society. “He just wanna be mighty but the world keep him small. Cost of bein’ colored and gifted. Brilliant and second class. Make you insane.”

But Blue turns out increasingly to be in the grip of haunting memories of his ill-fated mother and psychotic father, and as it turns out, as a result of mental illness, he is slowly losing his talent along with mind.

Audiences expect the jazz artists that inhabit stories about them to cause one problem after another in their pursuit of artistic and personal freedom.

Think “Bird,” “Mo’ Better Blues,” “Sweet and Lowdown” and "Round Midnight.”

In those cases, your sympathy for the troubled artist never falters. But Blue is so temperamental and harsh, it becomes hard to care about him.

It’s especially unnerving to take in his harsh, short tempered and domineering treatment of his girlfriend, shy and super-wholesome Pumpkin (a splendid Kristolyn Lloyd).  If ever there was an archetypical good girl, this one is it.

Her life is exclusively devoted to pleasing Blue, whom she loves and thinks is a genius (which in certain ways he is), eagerly functioning as his housecleaner, cook, waitress and lover.

When no one’s looking, she reads aloud from a book of poems by the relatively unknown Harlem Renaissance writer Georgia Douglas Johnson,

“The heart of a woman goes forth with the dawn,” Pumpkin muses out loud.

Her behavior is an intriguing eccentricity, but so far nothing about Blue and Pumpkin feels truthful enough to be compelling.

Half way through the first act, Silver (a fearless Simone Missick) shows up, bringing a much needed dose of heat with her.

Talk about film noir. She is dressed all in black and has the slow-motion hip swaying walk of a black panther. Silver hails from Louisiana, she’s a widow with a suspiciously dead husband and she wants to rent a room, flashing the large wad of cash stashed in her plunging neckline to pay for it.

Blue begrudgingly complies and labels her the “black widow.”

Silver and Pumpkin are a study in opposites, and the meek Pumpkin grows increasingly fascinated by the worldly newcomer’s sophistication and sexual aggressiveness.

In one delicious sequence, while changing the linens in Silver’s upstairs room, Pumpkin pulls the boarder’s black bustier out of a drawer, tries it on over her cardigan, and pretends to walk like a “spider woman” in front of an invisible mirror.

In another, to her great shock, she discovers a gun in Silver’s luggage, reinforcing the rumor that the guest shot her husband to death.

It doesn’t take long before the temptress seduces Corn, dulling the flame he had still carried for his late wife.  Silver also takes an active interest in the economics of the Paradise Club.

Viewing Black Bottom is an opportunity for black people to run their own enterprises rather than “sharecroppin’ and reapin’ white folks’ harvest,” she makes no bones about having sufficient cash to buy the club.

But Blue wants no part of her.

Morisseau utilizes colloquial black dialect to create poetically stylized dialogue and Battiste and Smith are masters of delivering it with impressive naturalness.

What’s on their minds is gentrification, and they fear Blue is going to receive an offer to sell the club to the racist establishment and be tempted accept it. 

P-Sam is even convinced Blue will sell them out, but Blue blows off their concerns.

However, when he is alone with Pumpkin, he feverishly confesses that an offer has been placed on the table and that he plans to accept it. Pleading hysterically with her, he insists that they must abandon the past and move to Chicago if he is to regain his talent.

Pumpkin views Black Bottom is an oasis from the harsh and biased outside world, has always lived there, loves it and doesn’t want to leave. Yet she is compelled to accede to her lover’s wishes.

When the numbers-playing Sam wins a lot of money, and he and Silver come up with their own plan to buy the club, “Paradise Blue” takes another drastic shift and transforms into shameless out-and-out melodrama dosed with surrealism.

There’s an astonishing nightmare scene in which the tormented Blue, whose musical gifts have evaporated, is tortured by the sounds of trumpet music that literally seems to attacking him. (Sound designer Darron L. West does fabulous work).

Mistaking the meaning of an embrace between Pumpkin and Sam, Blue attacks his loyal girlfriend with so ferocity, it’s clear she’s in danger.

Ultimately, Silver comes to her rescue and the two women have a remarkable exchange.

Pumpkin listens intently as Silver makes the point that she must stop being docile and thinking easing a man’s troubles will make her safe. No woman is ever safe, continues the toughened voice of experience, and there’s another way of walking through life. With that Silver hands over her gun and teaches Pumpkin how to use it.

In the next scene, Pumpkin has hed her cardigan for a red satin gown and has obviously become Siver's disciple.

Corn and Sam have learned Blue has secretly decided to sell the Paradise to the city for $10,000, beating to the bunch before they made their offer.

That Blue is willing to deliver their spiritual home and livelihood into the hands of “no count crackers that think of me as less than the spilled whiskey on they shoe” triggers a ferocious physical assault.  In order to bring an end to the violence, Pumpkin emerges with the gun.

 “Every part of this place is who I am,” she tells Blue, speaking of her home in Black Bottom. “It’s killin’ you but it’s keepin’ the rest of us alive.”

Pumpkin’s action is both self-defense and a kind of divine mercy and transforms Blue into a film noir who is meant to die.

Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson runs with the stylization in this production allowing it to take its perplexing course without intervention.

Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” the 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Clybourne Park,” set in the same fictional Chicago neighborhood as Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play. “A Raisin in the Sun.” and August Wilson’s glorious “Jitney” all dealt with gentrification.

In those cases, no emotional and moral focus was given to those who are committed to staying. Nor did anyone get shot.

Morisseau and her play seem in awe of their lack of control.

'Paradise Blue' has been extended to June 17 at Signature Center (ticketservices@signaturetheatre).

  .Kristolyn Young Man With a Horn: J.Alphonse Nicholson

 

 

Study in Contrasts:Simone Missick, Kristolyn Lloyd

 

Friday
May252018

‘THREE TALL WOMEN’ - GLENDA JACKSON AS EDWARD ALBEE’S MOTHER

Glorious Glenda Jackson

HENRY EDWARDS - New York - April 3, 2018

The Broadway production of Edward Albee’s 1991 autobiographical drama, “Three Tall Women,” is the most compelling event of the current theatre season.

What makes the experience even headier is the presence of Glenda Jackson as one of the three title characters. Costars Laurie Metcalf and Alison Pill portray the other tall women, and they, too, superb.

It’s been 30 years since two-time Oscar winner Jackson appeared on Broadway, 26 years since she retired from acting to spend 19 years serving in Parliament, and two years since the actress returned to the stage and stood London on its bespoke ear as Shakespeare’s “King Lear.”

Albee freely admitted that “Three Tall Women” brings to life his narcissistic and domineering adoptive mother, Frances Cotter Albee.

The playwright was born in Virginia in 1928 and adopted three weeks later by Reed Albee, an heir to the Keith-Albee chain of vaudeville theaters, and wife, Frances. 

Patrician and distant, the couple was unsuited to dealing with an artistically inclined child.

Albee, who grew up feeling like an interloper in their home, subsequently characterized his foster parents as a “white, upper-middle-class, rich, deeply fascistically Republican family.”

Things reached the boiling point and between Albee and his adoptive mother when his politics grew more liberal and he became more open about his homosexuality which Frances despised. 

At the age of 18, he left home and did not see the aggressively unpleasant and judgmental socialite for 20 years.

“It is true I did not like her much, could not abide her prejudices, her loathings, her paranoias, but I did admire her pride, her sense of self,” the writer wrote in the introduction to the published edition of his play.

Frances Albee died in 1989 at the age of 91, and it was not until after her death that her son thought the time had arrived to transform his recollections into a play.

His strikingly personal effort scrutinizes, in its various stages, the life of the dying woman.

Albee ranks as the foremost playwright of his generation. Yet in the 1980s, after a debilitating battle with alcoholism and three commercial and critical Broadway failures in a row, he was banished from the New York theatre scene.

After every producer turned down “Three Tall Women,” Albee staged its world premiere at Vienna's English Theatre in 1991.

Three years later, in 1994, in one of the great turnarounds in the history of American drama, an Off Broadway production caused a sensation, and the 26th of Albee’s 35 plays became the only one ever to receive unanimous praise.

Albee had twice earned the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (for “A Delicate Balance” and “Seascape”) and “Three Tall Women” gave him his third win.

The Off Broadway production of the playwright’s first play, “The Zoo Story,” proved to be brilliant launching pad for his career, and Off Broadway restored him to glory.

“Three Tall Women” is a two-act play with no intermission between the acts and absolutely no story to tell.  It’s all talk, and there’s plenty if it, two hours’ worth to be precise.

Thanks to the pitch perfect direction of Joe Mantello and the stunning delivered by three splendid actresses, you will listen spellbound.

Choosing not to give his characters fictional names, the playwright identifies each alphabetically.

Jackson portrays demanding and imperious 92-year-old “A” (who insists she’s 91).

Wearing a dressing gown, her broken arm in a sling and held together by pins, the ferocious crone rules over her opulent bedroom, beautifully designed by Miriam Buether.

The actress, who seems capable of speaking for ten minutes without stopping to take a breath, drenches the stage with a feverish cascade of alternately funny and appalling memories and remarks.

Two minions attend the cantankerous matriarch, humoring her and rolling their eyes in disbelief.

“B” (Metcalf) is the old woman’s fifty-two-year-old secretary and caretaker. Compassionate, clear-eyed and wryly cynical, she does her level best to manage and negotiate A’s incomprehensible mood swings, inconsistencies and nastiness.

“C” (Pill) is the 26-year-old representative of A’s attorney and she’s there to tidy up some of the old woman’s financial affairs before it’s too late. Impatient and increasingly frustrated by A’s contrariness, C proves unwilling to “be nice.”

It’s obvious both women are dismayed by their client, and it’s hard to blame them.

A is forgetful, self-contradictory, incontinent, homophobic, anti-Semitic, and at times hostile, shouting sudden, vile insults aimed at the living and the dead.

Even though she appears to be suffering from dementia, she suddenly remembers her life experiences in great detail, and that includes a hilariously risqué Albee monologue about her husband’s “pee-pee.”

A married for money and became an affluent society wife, but her sister became a drunkard who was later forced to marry.

Despite caring for her drunken sister and ill mother and husband, she takes pride in her perseverance: “I think they all hated me, because I was strong, because I had to be.”

There’s also a son and there’s a decided coolness between him and his mother.

 “Will he come today?  Is today the day he comes?” A wonders out loud. “He never comes to see me, and when he does he never stays.”

Overcome by rage, she shouts, “I’ll fix him; I’ll fix all of ‘em.”

The act suddenly comes to an uninspected conclusion when A suffers a massive stroke and becomes unresponsive.

Albee, one of the great innovators of the theater, has experimented with various genres and techniques over the years and “Three Tall Women” is no exception.

 In the first act of the play, he looks at his mother from the outside.  In the second act, in order to explore why she became so bitter and odious, he transforms the three tall women into one woman, his mother’s younger, middle-aged, and older selves.

C now represents A in her 20s, B in her 50s, and A in her energetic 70s.

A is no longer the sometimes irrational, uncomfortable creature that inhabited Act One.

 B has been transformed into an already jaded version of an A whose life has been riddled with conflicts and not turned out the way she expected.

 C is an attractive and resourceful 26-year-old who believes her happiness is in the future.

A life sized doll representing a dying A has been placed in her bed and the rear wall of the bedroom has been mirrored to reflect the audience as its watches itself as it watches Albee’s dissection of how we become what we

While A dominated the first half of the play and C did not have much to do, C, brilliantly portrayed by Alison Pill, commands the second half,  a brutal, but also hilarious, account of a lifetime of fighting, misunderstanding and marital woes.

C, all hope and quivering confidence   (she’s a fabulous fun loving 1920s flapper) is convinced she’ll never become her compromising, angry 52-year- old self or the embittered bed-ridden 92-year-old“thing” that lies in the bed.

Nor can she believe s and drive her only son out of the house
She listens in growing panic and disbelief as her older selves
tell of what’s in store for her, marriage to a man she doesn't love followed by his and her infidelity, his eventual death, the tortures of ill health, friends and family who disappoint, and most painful of all, the estrangement of a gay son she doesn’t understand, accept or love and drove from the house.

Just then, a young man (Joseph Medeiros, a lookalike for a young Edward Albee), enters, sits on A’s bed and pays respects to the woman he could neither forgive nor forget, touching her hand, giving her a peck on the cheek, but saying not a word.

At the sight of him B explodes: “He left! He packed up his attitudes and he left! And I never want to see him again.  Go away!”

That prompts a discussion of how each version of A, in turn, changed over the years into a vicious old harridan.

At the play draws to a conclusion, the three selves what the happiest moment in life is and Albee provides each with a stirring monologue.

C optimistically believes all of her happiest times haven't happened yet and are yet to come; B thinks that it is the middle of life, during which one can look both back and forward all at once; for A, the happiest moment is yet to come, for in that moment no one will expect her to continue being brave and soldiering on through adversity. 

Her final conclusion: “That’s the happiest moment.  When it’s all done.  When we stop.  When we can stop.”

The fading stage lights signify the end not only to the play but also to the old woman’s life.

Even though “Three Tall Women” concentrates on death and dying, it more profoundly deals with the shape of a human life, the inevitable changes that take place as we age and how we subjectively process those changes at each stage of our lives.  It seems as if no one is really prepared for the changes that are bound to come.

“Three Tall Women” is thrilling, and believe you me, it leaves you with plenty to think about.

Tickets and more information: THREE TALL WOMEN BROADWAY.

Three tall women Laurie Metcalf, Glenda Jackson and Alison Pill on not the easiest of days