In his new capacity as artistic director of True Colors Theatre, former associate artistic director Jamil Jude’s first order of business appears to be a matter of tying up a specific loose end. (After 17 years, founder Kenny Leon handed over the reins of the company last season, in order to concentrate on his successful Broadway career.)
Playwright Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit Project consists of a trilogy of dramas situated there. True Colors mounted the first of them (“Detroit ’67”) in 2015, and the second (“Skeleton Crew”) earlier this year. Jude’s current staging of the third, “Paradise Blue,” offers a sense of completion that’s certainly admirable, even though the play itself is, by far, the weakest link in the chain.
The time is the late 1940s, and the setting is a jazz club and rooming establishment called Paradise Valley (meticulously envisioned by scenic designers — and twin sisters — Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay) in the beleaguered Black Bottom neighborhood of Detroit. Blue (Javon Johnson) owns the joint and fronts the quartet that performs there, although his bassist has recently quit the group.
The place is described as the most popular hangout around, but the play’s action unfolds entirely during its off-hours, where Blue and his two remaining sidemen, his pianist Corn (Keith Arthur Bolden) and his drummer P-Sam (Enoch King), congregate to shoot the breeze, along with Blue’s girlfriend, the barmaid and housekeeper Pumpkin (Cynthia D. Barker).
Many of their conversations allude to the ongoing socioeconomic “blight” in the area, and circulating rumors about white investors looking to buy out black businesses in the interest of “urban renewal.” The plot also thickens after an alluring stranger named Silver (Tangela Large) arrives to inquire about renting a room, whose reputation as a “voodoo woman” and “black widow” from the backwaters of Louisiana quickly catches up with her.
So far, so fair. The strongest element of “Paradise Blue” is the well-observed discussions the characters have about the organized disenfranchisement of the Black Bottom community. When Blue gets an offer from city hall to sell his club, both Silver and P-Sam propose counteroffers as a means of trying to keep the neighborhood to themselves.
But Morisseau has never been the subtlest of writers. How Silver comes into her money is shady, at best. P-Sam’s sudden wealth is due to the coincidental winning of a local lottery. As the drama progresses, other implausible or unsubstantiated plot twists and mood swings inflict more and greater limitations on the play’s effectiveness.
Out of nowhere, it seems, the volatile Blue is suddenly beset by personal demons, unhinged by memories from his tragic past, and Paradise Valley begins showing the supernatural signs of a haunted house of sorts.
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And the sweet and timid Pumpkin, once content reciting the lyrical poetry of Harlem Renaissance figure Georgia Douglas Johnson to the others, gets a dubious lesson in female empowerment from the no-nonsense Silver that threatens to transform her into some kind of gun-toting femme fatale. Not even an actress of Barker’s considerable talents can make honest sense out of that.
Indeed, when one character talks about finding moments of perfect harmony and ending things on a good note, in the larger context of “Paradise Blue” as a whole, nothing could be further from the truth.
Through Oct. 20. 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; 11 a.m. Wednesdays. $15-$40. Southwest Arts Center, 915 New Hope Road, Atlanta. 888-479-6300. truecolorstheatre.org.
Bottom line: Overwrought.
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