One of the things I like about subscribing to the Signature Theatre Company’s season is that it’s an easy way to get to see multiple works by playwrights I don’t know. In past years, I’ve been introduced to Will Eno, Quiara Alegría Hudes, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, and Annie Baker, among others. (It’s also been a good way to catch up with writers I do know but don’t manage to see often enough, but that’s a note for another report.) This month was Dominique Morisseau’s turn. As with many of the others, I’d heard Morisseau’s name; her last play in New York City, Pipeline, was presented last summer by Lincoln Center Theater. I’d never seen any of her plays, however, so I was pleased when Morisseau was named to a Residency 5 at Signature, which will entitle her to three productions at the Pershing Square Signature Center over a five-year residency. The 2017-18 season has brought one of her plays to Signature’s stages; the remainder of her work in the residency has not been scheduled, but I look forward to seeing the plays in upcoming seasons.
Morisseau’s first offering at Signature is Paradise Blue, the second play of the dramatist’s three-play cycle (but the first in the chronology of their settings), The Detroit Project. It premièred at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts (where it was also developed) in 2015 with Ruben Santiago-Hudson as the director and STC cast members Kristolyn Lloyd as Pumpkin and Keith Randolph Smith as Corn. (Both Detroit ’67, set during the Detroit riots of July 1967, and Skeleton Crew, about auto-workers during the recession of 2008, the other two scripts in the series, were first staged in New York: Public Theater, Classical Theatre of Harlem/National Black Theatre – 2013; Atlantic Theater Company – 2016, respectively.)
Paradise Blue underwent further development at Princeton, New Jersey’s McCarter Theatre, the New York Theatre Workshop, and New York’s Public Theater, and the TimeLine Theatre Company of Chicago gave it a mounting in 2017; the Signature presentation is Paradise Blue’s New York City début. The play won the 2012 L. Arnold Weissberger New Play Award and the 2015 Edgerton Foundation New Play Award. The current production, in the Signature Center’s variable-space, black-box Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, started previews on 24 April 2018 and opened on 14 May. Diana, my theater friend, and I saw the 8 p.m. performance on Saturday, 19 May; the production is scheduled to close on 17 June (extended twice from 3 June).
Morisseau, 40, was born in Detroit to a mother from Mississippi and a father from Haiti. She’s trained as an actor, with a BFA in acting from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (which is also where she met her husband, Jimmy “J.” Keys, a music promoter and hip-hop musician also from Detroit, whom she married in 2013.) She began her theater career as a performer, starting as a speaker of live poetry—which may account for some of her writing style, which is lyrical in the vein of Tennessee Williams and August Wilson, a model for her playwriting. One of her roles was in a 2008 workshop staging of The Mountaintop by Katori Hall, who became a Residency 5 playwright at Signature in 2011; she repeated her performance in The Mountaintop at the Actors Theatre of Louisville in 2013. Morisseau continues to act, but she says she won’t appear in any of the premières of her own plays.
Finding a dearth of roles for her at U of M, Morisseau began writing plays herself. One of her first scripts, written while she was still in college, was The Blackness Blues – Time to Change the Tune (A Sister’s Story) (1998), “a choreopoem like Ntozake Shange writes” which she also directed (as well as choreographed, performed in, produced, and designed lights for). She returned to the Lark Play Development Center in New York City, where she had acted in Hall’s Mountaintop in 2008, with a Playwrights of New York (PoNY) fellowship in 2012 and ’13. She has also worked with City University of New York’s Creative Arts Team as a Teaching Artist. In October 2015, American Theatre included Morisseau in its list of Top 20 Most-Produced Playwrights for the 2015-16 season at number 10 with 10 productions across the U.S. in non-profit theaters (all members of the Theatre Communications Group, publisher of AT). (The playwright is a writer and story editor on the Showtime cable series Shameless.)
Morisseau writes disquieting social dramas which spotlight the African-American experience—much the way August Wilson’s celebrated plays do. Like Wilson’s feeling for his hometown, Morisseau has a strong affection for Detroit, “a city,” one journalist recently observed, “that outsiders have repeatedly left for dead.” She recounts:
I thought, after reading [Wilson’s] cycle of Pittsburgh, that the people of Pittsburgh must feel so valued after reading this man’s work, and I wanted the people of Detroit to have an author doing the same thing for them. . . . I love my city, so this trilogy is also my way of spreading that love.
Paradise Blue bears some significant similarities in theme and plot elements with August Wilson’s Jitney (see my report on Manhattan Theatre Club’s Broadway production of Wilson’s play, posted on 24 February 2017), which was also directed by Santiago-Hudson.
The Washington Post reviewer Peter Marks called Morisseau a “social observer of invigorating insight” and declared that “she reveals a knack . . . for nuanced accounts of the travails of blue-collar men and women and the questionable choices that illuminate their complicated lives.” Her prose combines the lyricism of her Southern roots and the musicality of her father’s Caribbean heritage. The playwright’s mother was an elementary school teacher and devoted to literature and the arts, so she got her daughter into dance at her aunt’s dance company, starting her in performance, and read her poetry, which informed the budding dramatist’s writing.
Morisseau has said that music also plays an important role in her dramaturgy and (as sister STC playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes has also said—see my report on Daphne’s Dive, posted on Rick On Theater on 29 May 2016) acknowledges that it often informs the script she’s writing: “It’s a resource and clue to my work, and music plays a unifier among cultural barriers.” Her husband is a musician and hip-hop artist and she was also a dancer as a child and used to play the piano, so music is part of the idiom of her life and art. “Music is everything and everything is music to me,” she says.” (As you’ll soon learn, Paradise Blue is set in the world of jazz musicians and clubs in 1949 Detroit. There is considerable music, both on record and “live,” in the production: Silver travels with a record player and her album collection and Blue “plays” a few licks on his trumpet when he’s alone. Original music for the production was composed by jazz trumpeter and trombonist Kenny Rampton; Bill Sims, Jr., is the music director for Paradise Blue.)
Paradise Blue is a two-act play (one intermission) set in Detroit in 1949. The Blackbottom neighborhood, the center of African-American life in Detroit, is slated for “urban renewal” by Albert Cobo (1893-1957; city treasurer, 1935-50; mayor, 1950-57). Paradise Valley, the business and entertainment district of Blackbottom, is home to many jazz clubs, including Paradise Blue, the focus of Morisseau’s play. The great jazz artists such as Billie Holiday, Sam Cooke, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine, Pearl Bailey, and Count Basie perform in the area’s clubs and boîtes—and the Linney walls are decorated with reproductions of posters for such artists. (Blackbottom, usually spelled Black Bottom, was totally razed by the so-called slum clearance, and never rebuilt. Mayor Cobo instead expanded Detroit’s freeway system and built highways through the neighborhood, obliterating Paradise Valley, the site of which can no longer even be found as all the landmarks have disappeared. Cobo had won the mayoralty by campaigning to halt “the Negro invasion of white neighborhoods in Detroit.”) “I knew I wanted to tell a story about how we lost Paradise Valley . . .,” explains Morisseau. “Theatre allows you to resurrect people, places, and communities.”
The play is set up as a sort of flashback, though theatergoers might not spot that (Diana didn’t). It opens on Blue (J. Alphonse Nicholson) “playing” his trumpet alone at a mic on a dimly lit stage of Paradise Blue, the jazz club where he and his band play. Within seconds, he mimes an action (which I won’t specify) that, if the viewer remembers it two hours and 20 minutes later, is a foreshadow of the play’s last moment. Following a black-out, the lights return to normal and the action of the play begins as Pumpkin (Kristolyn Lloyd), the club’s Cinderella and gal Friday, is sweeping the empty bar. Corn (Keith Randolph Smith), the piano man, and P-Sam (Francois Battiste), the percussionist, arrive. They’re waiting for Blue, wondering if he’s going to sell the club to the city for “slum clearance” (“We the blight he talkin’ about,” says P-Sam.) and if he’s replaced Joe, the bassist, who’s quit over Blue’s dictatorial management style (“My club. My band. Ain’t nobody gettin’ solo time but me,” he proclaims).
Blue, a gifted but haunted trumpeter and the owner of Paradise Blue, is torn between remaining in Blackbottom with Pumpkin, his loyal girlfriend, and leaving behind a traumatic past. It’s no surprise that the band members want the club to remain open so they can keep their gig. The arrival of a mysterious woman named Silver (Simone Missick), however, stirs up curiosity and concern and the fate of Paradise Blue comes into doubt. After all, the joint isn’t doing well at the box office and is about to succumb to the wrecking ball anyway—along with the rest of the neighborhood.
Blue is tormented by memories of his mother, strangled to death by his mentally unbalanced father, a jazzman from whom Blue inherited both the club and his musical chops, because he saw the devil trying to take her. He’s also on a lifelong search, according to Corn, for “Love Supreme”—“what we call it when you hit that perfect note that cleans your sins. Like white light bathin’ him with mercy. It’s that part in the music that speak directly to God, and make you ready to play with the angels,” Corn explains. Pumpkin is devoted to Blue, so much so that she excuses and overlooks all his angry and insensitive behavior; she also loves to recite poetry aloud. (The playwright, who you recall performed spoken poetry in her pre-playwriting days, has Pumpkin drawn to the verse of Harlem Renaissance poet and playwright Georgia Douglas Johnson, 1880-1966, because Morisseau wanted an “under-known” Black woman poet.) Blue’s intemperance makes the volatile hustler P-Sam (because he’s “Percussionist” Sam—though he hates to be called just Sam) seem almost reasonable, and Corn (short for Cornelius) is the older man of reason (just as Smith’s character in Jitney, Doub, was), except that he guesses wrong about almost everyone.
Silver, the epitome of a noir femme, is a disrupter and an honest-to-God black widow, having shot her husband before arriving at Paradise Blue (which also rents rooms upstairs) from Louisiana. (Her widow’s weeds—the costumes are designed by Clint Ramos and the ’40s-style hair and wigs are by Charles G. Lapointe—are a cross between the Black Knight’s suit of armor and something Sleeping Beauty’s evil stepmother might wear.) Her very walk gives away her personality as soon as she makes her appearance (Signature’s casting notice described it as “a meeeeaaaannnn walk”), and she immediately captivates everyone, including Pumpkin. Morisseau’s play is really less about the story than it is about the interaction among these denizens of Blackbottom and Paradise Blue; the plot, what little of it there is, is the catalyst for the character study.
Paradise Blue is Morisseau’s (stage) take on a film noir, which fits right in with the 1949 setting and the jazz-joint milieu. (The playwright has said that as a child, she was “very much into mysteries” and even “tried to write a few myself.” Since the mystery movies of the ’40s were often noir films, that’s another likely link to the genre for Paradise Blue.) Slinky, fatale Silver isn’t the only noir element in the play: there’s the moody jazz score (there’s something about a lone—and lonely—trumpet that just shouts “noir”); the shadowy club lighting (designed by Rui Rita), the sword hanging over the club, neighborhood, and characters; Blue’s mercurial temperament; the undercurrents of violence and sexuality; the many unspoken secrets the characters are hiding. There’s even a genuine McGuffin in the guise of a pistol Pumpkin finds in Silver’s dresser drawer when she goes snooping while changing the bed linen. Once Pumpkin reveals the gun—and later Silver lets on she knows Pumpkin found it and it’s produced a second time—we know it’ll be used sooner or later. (Shades of Alfred Hitchcock—a dab hand at the art of noir!) Like any film noir, you know that Paradise Blue will not end happily and no one will come out a winner.
Director Santiago-Hudson, who also helmed Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew at ATC, has the Linney set up with audience on two opposite sides of the runway-like stage, which runs along the short axis of the Linney from wall to wall; the audience risers are oriented along the room’s long axis. (Our seats were on the left side as we entered the Linney. I’ll orient my description as I was looking at it.) The acting area, as designed by Neil Patel, incorporates the Paradise Blue’s bar on my right with a few café tables; the bandstand containing P-Sam’s drum set, Corn’s piano, and the mic where Blue reaches for that Love Supreme in the middle; the upstairs bedroom Silver rents on a slightly raised platform on the far left; and the second-floor corridor along the right side of the runway (the rear of the stage from my perspective). Entrances are made from “outside” the bar below the counter (again, from my point of view) or from the “kitchen” (and the stairs to the second floor) above it. Rui Rita’s lights are cross-faded as the action moves from one area to another, but no area is blacked out as characters not involved in the scene could be in one of the other spaces, such as Silver in her room or moving along the corridor.
The look, both in Patel’s set and in Ramos’s costumes, is befitting the 1949 setting and rundown nature of the building. Neither the bar nor the people are doing all that well—though Blue and the others put up a good front. (We don’t learn much of Silver’s circumstances but she has access to money since she’s maneuvering to buy Paradise Blue.) Overhanging the stage is a large sign made up of light bulbs that proclaims “PARADISE” in huge letters as if to designate an oasis in the downtrodden world that is Blackbottom. Sound designer Darron L West’s jazz music track, supplementing Silver’s records and Blue’s trumpet-playing, adds to the overall period-and-milieu atmosphere.
Jazz is a metaphor in Paradise Blue, not the subject or the theme of the play. But it infuses the production as it does the lives of the characters and the life of Paradise Valley. It’s the quintessential African-American art form, an expression, in its foundation in improvisation and self-expression, of freedom, an outlet for creativity denied black Americans in many other fields—and it became universally popular first at home among white Americans then abroad. Furthermore, jazz is largely, almost entirely, about feelings, often exuberant when much of the rest of African-American life—as exemplified by Blackbottom and its imminent fate—was soul-crushing. As much as jazz is symbolic of black liberation in its spiritual sense, Blackbottom and Paradise Valley are symbols of black entrepreneurship and economic independence. (The neighborhood was settled by African Americans during the Great Migration to the industrial cities of the North from the former Confederacy following Reconstruction. The migrants were fleeing the oppressive triad of inescapable poverty, racial violence, and Jim Crow discrimination.)
There are, though, some significant aspects of Morisseau’s plot that I couldn’t parse. First, the struggle over who’ll buy Blue’s club, assuming he doesn’t sell it to the city. Both Silver and P-Sam (who hit the number) have designs on the joint—P-Sam even suggests a deal between him and Silver to sort of double-time Blue. I don’t get it. If Blue doesn’t sell out to the city, Mayor-elect Cobo, when he takes office in the new year, will simply condemn the property and seize it. No matter who owns it after Cobo becomes mayor, the wrecking ball gets it. (The characters don’t have to know that the area won’t be rebuilt—that’s not even relevant.) Second, Pumpkin is consistently disrespected by Blue, which she keeps excusing, but we never see him use violence. Yet, after being his dishrag all these years, at the very end of the play, out of nowhere I could discern, she abruptly turns on him. What does that get her? It won’t save the club or the band. If it’s some kind of revenge for unrevealed abuse, it isn’t in the play; if it’s not, the punishment doesn’t fit the crime.
As usual at Signature, the acting was good. But Morisseau laid a trap for the performers and Santiago-Hudson didn’t avoid it. The characters aren’t clichés or stock and they’re not really predictable, but they seem to be following a predetermined path. They seemed programmed and none of the actors broke the sense I had that they were all on a railroad track that was taking them to a planned end. What I said to Diana at intermission was that I felt as if Morisseau had started with a vision of the play’s ending (I won’t spoil it by being specific) and went about contriving a story that led there, essentially working backwards so that each scene would comprise a plot that took the characters step by step to that outcome. It isn’t character-driven or plot-driven so much as conclusion-driven.
In a corollary to the programmatic characters, they’re also overly consistent, leading the actors to give, if not one-note performances, then ones in which a single tone is dominant. As Blue, Nicholson is either barely keeping his anger in check or lashing out. (It made me wonder why Pumpkin remains so devoted to him—but that’s her problem.) Missick’s Silver never lets down her air of mystery and secrecy so that it reaches the extent that it becomes banal. Lloyd makes Pumpkin such a Pollyanna that it’s hard to believe anyone could miss the bad things happening all around her, seeing no threat from Silver, who mesmerizes Pumpkin, or the violence beneath Blue’s skin. One consequence of this is that the play’s final final moment comes out of nowhere.
As Daub in Jitney, Smith was wise and perspicacious, giving good guidance even if no one takes it. As Corn, he dispenses wisdom, which no one in Paradise Blue takes, either—but his judgment of human nature and situations is off and he keeps getting them wrong. Nonetheless, he doles it out continuously and neither he nor anyone else calls him on it. Battiste’s P-Sam is like a porcupine with his quills always out, though he never quite goes off. He makes plans and cooks up schemes, but never sees them through. He’s always so on edge, I wondered how he never had an aneurysm.
As director, Santiago-Hudson doesn’t help his cast out of these monochrome portrayals, however well the actors execute them. These are pretty big problems, I think, but the other work, including Morisseau’s writing, is of high enough quality to mollify the fault—though not completely overcome it. Paradise Blue consequently remains an artificial drama, sort of the way a video game isn’t as authentic as a movie.
On Show-Score, on the basis of 26 published reviews, the website gave Paradise Blue an average score of 76. Positive notices made up 85% of the total and mixed reviews made up 15%; there were no negative notices. There were three scores of 90 at the top (Broadway World, Stage Left, and Exeunt Magazine), followed by seven 85’s (including CurtainUp and Theater Pizzazz); the site’s lowest rating was two 60’s (TheaterScene.net and Variety), backed up by two 65’s (New York Times and Village Voice). My round-up will encompass 14 reviews.
In the New York Times, Jesse Green commented on the names Morisseau gave her characters by quipping, “The bassist has quit, perhaps because his name was just Joe”; the women are called Silver and Pumpkin, “as if they were paint chips.” Then Green added more seriously, “Everything is overripe . . . in ‘Paradise Blue’ . . . . The names are the least of it.” Green saw that Morisseau seemed to want the play to center on the tormented artist—“Cost o’ bein’ colored and gifted. Brilliant and second class make you insane” is how Corn explains Blue’s erratic behavior—but found “that explanation, however true, isn’t effectively dramatized.” For “a play that features so much talk of jazz and poetry, the real estate story is the most compelling aspect of ‘Paradise Blue.’” Green felt that the play “so overplays its genre tropes that the characters feel like incoherent afterthoughts. Especially in the second act, as the plot tries to wind itself into a climax, they stop making sense.” His overall assessment of the production is:
Instead of resisting that problem, Mr. Santiago-Hudson . . . doubles down on it. Every choice seems as extreme as possible, from the cut of the costumes . . . to the chiaroscuro lighting . . . . The performances, too, are hot and compelling in the way a five-alarm fire is, making you want to keep watching but also keep your distance.
The Timesman was especially critical of Nicholson’s Blue, whose “intensity is especially alarming”; but the reviewer added thar “Ms. Missick makes a stunning New York theater debut just walking across the stage.” His final judgment was that Paradise Blue, “despite several years of development[,] feels like a work that merits deeper and longer reconsideration. Though it engages powerful ideas in a format too weak to handle them, that’s a much more promising problem than the other way around.”
For New York magazine/Vulture, Sara Holdren asserted at her review’s outset that “Paradise Blue . . . is one of those plays that feels, for the most part, powerful when you witness it, and starts to spur more and more questions of character and logic the farther you get from it.” Holdren continued, however: “That’s not necessarily a dire flaw.” Now, I dislike quoting reviews at length in my reports, but New York magazine’s review-writer has penned a disquisition that states part of her opinion in detail:
The play . . . feels fable-like. It’s got the pull of fate to it, an air of moody melodrama that, at least in the moment, helps it gloss over questions of strict behavioral naturalism, of real actions and real consequences, in favor of a lively experimentation with archetypes and genre tropes. In particular, Morisseau is playing with noir, and in Paradise Blue’s most exciting moments, she both digs into our expectations for this kind of smoky, 1940s, damaged-dudes-and-dangerous-dames narrative and overturns them.
Holdren had considerable difficulty with the problematic ending of Paradise Blue (as did I) and in the final analysis, she concluded:
Paradise Blue balances somewhere between a truthful portrait of human suffering, awakening, and transformation in a gritty, changing city, and a genre exercise that obscures details of justification and consequence through a glass of dark glamour. Despite the murky fun of a good noir, I prefer the moments when, outside of archetype, I can see the play’s characters clearly.
Despite what I said above about quoting reviews at length, Helen Shaw of the Village Voice authored such a pungent description of her view of Paradise Blue that I have to share it:
The moment Silver walks through the door of Paradise Blue’s set, we know where we really are. We’re not just in Paradise Valley, the legendary jazz-club strip in Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood. Once Silver, played with glacial grace by Simone Missick, slinks in wearing her tight-fitting widow’s weeds, we see our surroundings for what they are. We’ve slipped out of the real world of 1949 and between the pages of a hard-boiled noir. From here on in, the femmes will be fatale, the men either lovable saps or tortured creeps, and the streets—as Raymond Chandler would have said—will be dark with something more than night.
Shaw had some caveats, too, however: “Morisseau’s ability to exploit the genre applies itself unevenly. Sometimes she’s got noir firmly in her grasp, while at other times (particularly in the final scene), you realize that she hasn’t stage-managed all the necessary motives and confrontations.” Of the New York première, she said, “Still, the piece gets significantly better as it goes along, and the production—gorgeously sound-designed by Darron L. West—has its own swing and strut.” The Voice reviewer concluded, “When Paradise Blue is running smoothly, it smuggles its insights onstage under cover of pulpiness.” In the New Yorker’s “Goings On About Town” column, the unnamed reviewer called Santiago-Hudson’s mounting a “charming and often incisive production” which “zips along with the spirit and verve of the music that imbues it, offering a rich slice of postwar African-American life, not least in Neil Patel’s spot-on set and Clint Ramos’s delectable period costumes.”
In Time Out New York, Raven Snook asserted, “Like the passionate music played in the 1949 Detroit jazz joint where it’s set, Dominique Morisseau’s Paradise Blue attempts to harmonize disparate influences.” She named August Wilson, Tennessee Williams, and Alice Walker as recognizable influences, but acknowledged that “the playwright’s singular voice eventually rings out.” Snook reported that “Blue comes off as a bit of a cipher, . . . because his decline is a metaphor for what happened to the Motor City’s famed African-American enclave Black Bottom, which was razed by wealthy white interests. But the supporting characters in his orbit have much richer melodies . . . under Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s lucid direction.” The TONY review-writer’s final analysis was that the play “has overlong riffs and isn’t as satisfying as her Obie-winning Skeleton Crew. Yet its haunting themes are liable to get stuck in your head.”
Frank Scheck’s “Bottom Line” in the Hollywood Reporter was “The language sings” and he went on to say, “There’s a musicality to Dominique Morisseau’s new drama, and it’s not only because the action takes place in a jazz club.” Scheck caviled, however, that “the thin storyline takes a back seat to the rich language on display; like many a jazz composition, Paradise Blue doesn’t cohere very well, but there are some dazzling solos.” The HR reviewer found the seduction of Corn by Silver “the play’s most compelling, fully realized aspect,” complaining, “The evening’s other plot strands prove thinner,” labeling them “forced,” “out of nowhere,” and “underdeveloped,” leading to a “melodramatic ending that feels unconvincing.” Scheck demurred some, however, asserting that “the play feels very much alive anyway, thanks to Morisseau’s prodigious gifts for language and creating small moments that register with significant emotional impact.” He lauded Santiago-Hudson’s directing for “infusing the proceedings with vivid atmosphere” and for the “mostly superb turns” he elicits “from the ensemble, which delivers the sort of lived-in performances that make you forget they’re acting.” The reviewer had praise especially for Missick’s performance (“mesmerizing”), Patel’s set design, Ramos’s costumes, and Rampton’s score. In the end, Scheck decided, “Paradise Blue may be an imperfect play, but it’s receiving a nearly perfect production.“
In Variety (one of Show-Score’s low-rated notices at 60), Marilyn Stasio, dubbing Paradise Blue a “black-and-bluesy play,” lamented that while the real-estate background “lends a good deal of perspective to the play, . . it’s too bad that the playwright didn’t make it integral to her plot-thin drama.” Stasio found, “Lacking that kind of thematic core, the play restricts itself to being an atmospheric but insubstantial slice of dramatic life.” The Variety reviewer reported, “In lieu of a plot, Morisseau presents us with a cast of full-bodied characters.” On the positive side, Stasio felt that “under the confident direction of Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the thesps have a good handle on their characters and the creative team offers them heroic support” and praised Patel’s set, Rita’s lighting, and West’s sound designs. Blue is Morisseau’s surrogate for the fate of Blackbottom and Paradise Valley, Stasio explained, “But in order to be that character, Blue needs more depth, along with a richer sense of humanity.”
Elyse Sommer of CurtainUp, noting that the play is “a fine way to launch Morisseau’s Signature residency,” observed that some focal aspects of Paradise Blue are “just a tad clichéd,” but added that “Mr. Santiago-Hudson and this ensemble make them very classy classy [sic] clichés.” Sommer found that “Santiago-Hudson has a good feel for the special nuances in . . . Morisseau’s . . . work” and has “fine tuned [the playwright’s distinctive voice] and the flexible Romulus Linney Courtyard Theater has enabled him and his designers to make the audience . . . feel immersed in” the play’s milieu. All the actors are “excellent,” but “it’s Lloyd’s Pumpkin and Smith’s Corn who are the most emotionally engaging characters.”
On Broadway World, Michael Dale (in one of Show-Score’s high-scoring 90’s) proclaimed that Paradise Blue “firmly establishes Morisseau as one of the most exciting voices to be heard at New York theatres”; he declared her “a playwright who firmly tackles controversial issues through realistic characters while embracing the varying linguistic tones of urban America.” Dale acknowledged that some of Paradise Blue’s dramaturgy “seems [a] bit familiar,” but he asserted, “Morisseau's beautifully stylized piece embraces this, and other character depictions, as antiquated classics and hints at the changes ahead for urban African-Americans and in relationships between men and women.” Santiago-Hudson, the BWW reviewer reported, “keeps the atmosphere fluid and darkly dreamy, aided considerably by lighting designer Rui Rita and sound designer Darron L. West.”
Samuel L. Leiter, on his blog Theatre’s Leiter Side, described Morisseau’s writing in Paradise Blue as “highly actable and often humorous” and declared the play an “always engrossing work, sizzlingly staged by Ruben Santiago-Hudson.” Leiter, however, found that Paradise Blue has a “rather conventional plot” and complained, “Things grow increasingly melodramatic . . . and the late accumulation of developments and their contrived resolution bring the play to an ending that, for all its shock value, is . . . hard to buy.” He concluded that the play, “absorbing as it is, too frequently has the feel of something you’ve seen and heard before”; however, it “proves once again that Dominique Morisseau is a playwright to follow.”
Kenji Fujishima observed on TheaterMania, “Paradise Blue may be set in the world of jazz, but Dominique Morisseau’s play . . . feels less like an improvisatory jazz number than a tightly structured opera.” The “sense of freedom inherent in the most thrilling improvisations of . . . many of the . . . jazz greats whom Morisseau’s characters cite is lacking in Morisseau’s carefully cultivated world here” because her “setups lead to inevitable payoffs.” Fujishima backed off a little: “To some degree, that sense of airlessness is appropriate to a play that is largely about people trapped, willingly or not, in particular environments and mindsets.” But he confirmed that Morisseau’s writing, “even at its most eloquent, can’t . . . fully escape a touch of the schematic,” despite “the very fine actors who bring these ciphers to vivid life.” The TM review-writer reported that Santiago-Hudson “runs with the stylization in this production,” but “a high level of visual and aural imagination helps Morisseau’s flawed but worthy drama sing even when we sometimes find ourselves too conscious of the notes she’s trying to hit.”
“Paradise Blue . . . is a dazzling fireworks display of a play,” proclaimed Howard Miller on Talkin’ Broadway. “As with any show of pyrotechnics,” Miller affirmed, “a few of the explosives fizzle out prematurely, but most land with . . . kinetic energy.” Morisseau’s play is an “ambitious work that employs a degree of hyperrealism to capture the essence of life for both the African American community and for the individuals who are both protected and trapped within the narrowing space over which they have marginal control.” Nonetheless, Miller felt that the play “could profit from another round of revision” to strengthen some of the main plot points and pare back some of the extraneous ones. “Despite the occasional rickety bits, however, it is quite possible to see Dominique Morisseau as the heir apparent to August Wilson,” concluded the TB reviewer. Still, Morisseau’s “voice and style and characterizations are decidedly her own, and there is a lot going on here that makes us eager to see more of what this gifted playwright has in store.”
Joel Benjamin on TheaterScene.net (another low-rated 60 on Show-Score) found that despite similarities with August Wilson’s plays, Paradise Blue doesn’t have characters “quite as well rounded as Wilson’s and her injudicious inclusion of an over-the-top melodramatic ending turns a dark character study—not without its charms—into something ludicrous.” Directed by “experienced, sharp-eyed/eared’ Santiago-Hudson, the “talented cast . . . expertly fills in [the] blanks” formed by “much that is left unsaid” in Morisseau’s lines “with naturalness and energy.” Unfortunately, found Benjamin, “even . . . these qualities can’t quite make sense of the last volatile moments of Paradise Blue.”
On Theater Pizzazz, Sandi Durell characterized Paradise Blue as “finely layered” and compared Nicholson to “a young Denzel Washington filled with powerful, aching moments of pain.“ She felt, however, “It’s Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s strong directorial hand that turns this cast into a well-oiled remarkable machine that creates its own buzz, resulting in real and truthful performances, aided by Clint Ramos’ costumes and Kenny Rampton’s jazz infused music.”