The cast of Paradise Blue. Left to right: Rolanda D. Bell, Titus VanHook, Kenny Scott, Anna Marie Sharpe and Michael J. Asberry. Credit: Kevin Berne

Paradise Blue is the second play of MacArthur “genius” award-winner Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit Projects trilogy. Each takes place at a different decisive moment in her hometown’s history.

Paradise Blue, Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre, through Feb. 26

As tautly directed by Aurora Theatre Company’s Associate Artistic Director, Dawn Monique Williams, and with an outstanding troupe of local actors, Paradise Blue combines human psychological drama and Black political history to form a first-rate evening of theater.

The 1949 setting for Paradise Blue is a jazz joint called Paradise in Detroit’s Blackbottom neighborhood. The owner, known as Blue, is a gifted but tormented trumpet prodigy who inherited the aging Paradise from his trumpet-playing father. Like many legacies, the shopworn club is a two-edged sword for Blue, keeping him close to the ghosts of his chaotic upbringing. And Detroit’s approaching  “urban renewal” hovers above all else, threatening to destroy the whole area and the lives of the folks within it.

Although Blue (Titus VanHook) thinks Paradise is his alone, others depend on it for their livelihood, emotional sustenance and psychological well-being. The musicians in Blue’s backup band are the pianist Corn (Michael J. Asberry, Aurora’s Exit Strategy, The Bluest Eye), a soft-spoken, conciliatory widow, and the drummer P-Sam (Kenny Scott), a hothead with ambitions to run the club on his own.

Sweet young Pumpkin (Anna Marie Sharpe, Aurora’s The Incrementalist) is Blue’s lover. At the start of the play, she’s the “get-along gal” who likes to clean and cook for the musicians and the upstairs boarders. She silently accepts Blue’s abuse while repressing her own passion for poetry.

Into this hotbed of angst, sashays the stranger — the self-assured femme fatale, Silver (the excellent Rolanda D. Bell). And what a fabulous noir character she is. Gun-toting, tough-talking, lingerie-wearing Silver is the catalyst for the dazzling and dramatic changes the second act delivers. In one the finest written and acted scenes I’ve seen in a long time, Silver schools Pumpkin in self-assertion. “You a thinkin’ woman with her own words,” she tells her.

Titus VanHook and Rolanda D. Bell in Dominique Morisseau’s Paradise Blue. Credit: Kevin Berne

The second act ties together all the fragments of feminism, sociology, psychology, and history Morisseau packs into the introductory first act. And it leads to a powerful surprise ending (except for those familiar with Chekhov’s gun theory).

Like August Wilson’s Pittsburgh plays, Morisseau’s “Detroit Projects” form a rich body of work that captures a specific time and space and infuses it with richly imagined yet realistic characters. Detroit ’67, the first drama in Morisseau’s trilogy, was produced for appreciative audiences at Aurora in 2018. It illuminates the start of the 1967 Detroit riots that nearly destroyed the city. In the final play, Skeleton Crew, auto-plant workers grapple with the likely possibility of foreclosure and unemployment.

Live performances of Paradise Blue at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre run through Feb. 26. The play is 135 minutes long, plus one intermission. Proof of vaccination and mask-wearing is required. Tickets are $20-$75. Streaming performances, Feb. 21 – Feb. 26, are each available for 36 hours. For information and tickets, visit the Aurora website or call 510-843-4822.

Emily S. Mendel

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...