By BRUCE DENNILL
Paradise Blue / Directed by James Ngcobo / John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre, Newtown, Johannesburg
A sultry jazz noir that all takes place in a fading club in a part of Detroit called Black Bottom where gentrification is changing every aspect of the landscape, Paradise Blue is an examination of identity and how it is influenced by both place and people.
Blue (Aubrey Poo) is the eponymous club’s owner – a blunt, brash musician who uses the club’s stage and house band as a permanent showcase for his own talents, driven by the memory of his parents and their dysfunctional relationship (his father was, like him, a trumpeter). The departure of his quartet’s bassist – with input from Blue, whatever the minor details – causes tension as the band’s volatile drummer P-Sam (Pakamisa Zwedala) worries about his livelihood if he can’t play full-time. Piano player Corn (Seneliso Dladla) is more sanguine, understanding that Blue is under pressure from potential investors and hoping he will do right by his employees. Pumpkin (Busisiwe Lurayi), Blue’s girlfriend and the club’s cook and caretaker is equally supportive, suppressing her own creative urges in supporting her partner’s.
The fly in the ointment is a mysterious stranger named Silver (Lesedi Job), who arrives wanting to rent a room above the club. A widow who gives nothing away about her past or her intent, Silver is equal parts beguiling and disquieting, adding to the already strained atmosphere in what is certainly no longer any sort of paradise.
On a macro scale, the play investigates the effects of how high-level political interference – for the purported good of a city or country – negatively affects the communities (in this case in black neighbourhoods) whose collective history and cultural reference points reside in the areas being “upgraded”, and the activities practised there. Blue wants to stay, to keep his dream alive, but as developers buy up properties around his, he finds himself being bullied into a corner. It’s natural, if not healthy, that he passes on that pressure to his inner circle.
On a personal level, all of the play’s characters are feeling pressured by the institutional racism they are forced to endure. As what is happening in Black Bottom places an extra burden on them, they are all forced to question what they are doing there and how worthwhile it will be to remain in not only their geographical space, but also in the roles they currently play – as African Americans, as men and women, as artists, as romantic partners and on and on into deeper layers of their personalities.
This thought-provoking philosophical aspect of the piece is put across succinctly through the simplicity of the main plot. Visual, aural and emotional lushness is added via a full house of excellent performances – Dladla arguably just edges his co-stars for top honours – and a moodiness imparted by some gorgeous music.
Behind the action, in the arches at the back of the John Kani Theatre stage, are a keyboard player and a double bassist who support the cast members when they sing as part of the unfolding narrative. Paradise Blue is not a musical, but music is part of the fabric of its characters’ lives, so their expressing themselves through song makes a great deal of sense. Poo – probably the cast member best known for singing as a result of his extensive work in musical theatre – has a beautifully sonorous voice, but he in no way overshadows the vocal work of his colleagues. In this area, Dladla does stand out, playing sensitive piano on an upright in the centre of the stage as well as handling lead and harmony duties, the latter in a sublime duet with Poo that raises heartfelt spontaneous applause.
There are no real villains in this piece, though there is plenty of anger and a touch of tragedy. It’s simply a difficult situation in which a small group of individuals with differing levels of generosity, ruthlessness, loyalty and ambition are trying to do what they feel needs doing.
Moving, stylish and well-made.