Whether you’re in a bar in Detroit or a township in South Africa, if you’re black in a country where racism is rife, the emotions, the circumstances and challenges aren’t too different.
This year’s Market Theatre production to mark Black History Month is Paradise Blue, set in a jazz bar in a run-down part of Detroit. Gentrification is looming, partly to improve the area but mostly, the residents suspect, to shift out the poor blacks who ‘blight’ the landscape. Apart from the accents, and the fact that gentrification in this story is more voluntary than enforced, it could be set in Sophiatown.
The play by African American playwright Dominique Morisseau stars Aubrey Poo as Blue, the club owner with a haunted past, a bad attitude, and a secret plan to sell the property and move on. He is a bombastic bully, and Poo captures his anger that stems from trauma well.
Seneliso Dladla as the pianist Corn is particularly enjoyable, initially bashful and admirably respectful of women, and gaining confidence as he is seduced by Silver, the sexy out-of-towner who breezes in with a plan of her own.
A man who needs a stronger plan is Sam (Pakamisa Zwedala) the musician who is suddenly superfluous and finds out what it’s like to be a black man with no money, no respect and no hope.
While Morisseau gives us a good array of menfolk, it’s the women who she crafts more strongly. Her writing gives tender-hearted Pumpkin a real depth that actor Busisiwe Lurayi grabs superbly, while Lesedi Job turns Silver into a shimmering siren with brains and cunning beneath the make-up.
There are some wisecracks along the way and a few telling comments about the intolerable racism around them, but the script centres largely on whether everyone stands together, or it’s each man for himself. The backstory about Blue’s trauma could be highlighted more for a stronger dramatic punch, but it skims along as the cause of his torment without sufficient exploration.
The story is carried along with musical numbers and the actors all have powerful voices that make the songs a pleasurable part of the whole. They also break up the fairly wordy script, which does begin to feel a little overlong before it suddenly ends in a flurry.
The action unfolds on an evocative set designed by Nadya Cohen, with a jazz bar in the centre and Silver’s bedroom to the right-hand side, which isolates it quite drastically from the audience on the left hand side of the stage.
The direction by James Ngcobo is full of energy, but at times the characters have their backs to us as they speak or block the view of the person they’re speaking to.