A Quest for Perfection

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Darian Michael Garey, Destiny Deshuan Washington and Dereks Thomas in "Paradise Blue" at Gloucester Stage Company. (Courtesy Jason Grow)
Darian Michael Garey, Destiny Deshuan Washington and Dereks Thomas in "Paradise Blue" at Gloucester Stage Company. (Courtesy Jason Grow)

Paradise Blue, Gloucester Stage, through September 18. 978-281-4433 or gloucesterstage.com.

Dominique Morisseau is a talented playwright as enamored of her native Detroit as the late great August Wilson of his Pittsburgh. She has called her own three-play cycle (Wilson's, of course, ten plays) "The Detroit Project." Like Wilson, Morisseau is significantly concerned with such enduringly troubling issues as racial tension, discrimination, unfair employment, gentrification and deferred dreams. Area theatergoers may remember her strong play "Skeleton Crew" (the third play in the cycle and a 2022 Tony Award nominee) rivetingly staged by the Huntington Theatre. "Paradise Blue" , the middle work ("Detroit '67," the first play, as yet unseen by this critic) , may not be as thematically focused as auto plant-centered "Skeleton Crew," but a fine Gloucester Stage Company cast is making Morisseau's often poignant dialogue and affecting characters continuously involving.

"Paradise Blue" opens promisingly enough at the appealingly funky late 1940's Paradise Club—kudos to Janie Howland's well-detailed scenic design and Toni Sterling's evocative lighting—in the Black Bottom area of Detroit. Trumpeter Blue means to keep "the only jazz spot in town" open and thriving despite the racism-driven gentrification push of the (unseen) mayor at the expense of the area's blacks. His girlfriend Pumpkin, who cleans the club, gains inspiration as a reflective woman from the poetry of Harlem Renaissance poetess Georgia Douglas Johnson (1880-1966)—especially her 1918 collection "The Heart of a Woman" in which she finds particular validation.

P-Sam, the strong-willed drummer of Blue's band, heartily endorses Pumpkin's independent thinking even though his love for her is unrequited. At the same time, he seeks the solo time that Blue refused to give the quartet's now departed bassist and questions the obstinate trumpeter's seriousness about the band and the club. Pianist Corn, Blue's best friend, observes that people may not be able to afford the club's ticket prices but tries to be a kind of peacemaker between Blue and P-Sam.

That fragile peace receives a serious jolt with the entrance of an alluring woman named Silver, who rents a room above the club. A very self-confident woman with her own agenda, she looks into the possibility of acquiring the Paradise. Still, Silver does encourage Pumpkin to fulfill herself. Complicating that fulfillment are bruises apparently at the hand of Blue and the "demons" plaguing the trumpeter who as a child saw his father kill his mother.

Eventually the play's conflicts reach a fever pitch, but Morisseau opts for an ending that does not seem convincing. By contrast, her "Skeleton Crew" delivers a kind of knockout punch of resolution for its strikingly vulnerable characters. At the same time, the latter play does more with the threat of its plant's foreclosure than "Paradise Blue" does with the perils of gentrification.

Fortunately, co-directors Elise Joyner and Logan Pitts dodge the perils of the play's unresolved second act tensions with satisfying pacing and the contributions of the stellar cast. Destiny Deshuan Washington is commandingly heartfelt and conflicted as Pumpkin. Her affecting declamation of Johnson's pre-feminist poetry will have many audience members searching out the Harlem Renaissance spokeswoman's collections. Durrell Lyons captures Blue's ambition and Alpha male demeanor and does his best with dialogue that needs to do more with the trumpeter's inner torment.

By contrast, Darian Michael Garey has all of P-Sam's understandable rage as well as his tenderness with Pumpkin. Dereks Thomas moves from singular restraint with Blue to telling openness with enticing Silver. Alexandria Danielle King balances Silver's slither with her no-nonsense candor. A particular highpoint is the unusual mentoring Silver provides Pumpkin about dealing with men—here a dynamic virtuoso turn for King and Washington.

Blue seeks 'love supreme,' a moment of perfect harmony. Morisseau achieves such a moment in "Skeleton Crew" if not in "Paradise Blue." Even so, the superb Gloucester Stage cast members—to borrow from Corn—do play for their souls.