Between the Lines: Paradise Blue


Dominique Morisseau headshot high resParadise Blue is part of a three-play cycle chronicling important moments in Detroit’s history, by Motor City native Dominique Morisseau. The first play in the cycle, Detroit ’67, produced at the Public Theater in 2013, looks at the explosive and unstable days of the 1967 riots/rebellion. Skeleton Crew, slated for a 2016 production at the Atlantic Theater Company, depicts four auto workers facing an uncertain future as the city edges toward the 2008 recession. Paradise Blue, receiving its world premiere here at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, takes us to a Paradise Valley jazz club in 1949. Between rehearsals, Dominique found time to speak with WTF Literary Assistant Rachel Wiegardt-Egel about her hometown, her inspiration for the play, and the importance of reexamining history.

[RACHEL WIEGARDT-EGEL] To start by taking a wide lens, why do you think it’s important to reexamine history theatrically?

[DOMINIQUE MORISSEAU] Theatre can make history alive and personal, and put it in our laps. I actually hated history in high school. It was the one class where I would sit and write a countdown on my notepaper, “5, 4, 3, 2, finally I’m free!” It bored me to tears. It wasn’t being explored or presented in a way that was interesting, in a way that was human. For me, history is very, very human. It’s not facts and dates—it’s stories of people surviving.

What inspired you to write your Detroit cycle, to tell these stories of your hometown?

[DM] Two different things inspired me to write the cycle. I was doing a study of a playwright from Detroit named Pearl Cleage, reading all of her plays. I like the way that she wrote Black women characters, and felt very affirmed by the humane way that she portrayed us. I also really got intrigued with the voice of an artist over a series of works, not just one. After reading her work, I read August Wilson’s Century Cycle. I had been familiar with his work since I was a teenager, but I had never read all of his plays back-to-back. I was really enamored with the musicality in his work and I also thought, “Wow, how must people of Pittsburgh feel when they read August Wilson’s work? They must feel so loved and so affirmed.” I want to do that for my city. Detroit gets such a bad reputation in the media. It gets so mishandled and so mistreated, in narrative, by outsiders of the city. The humanity of our city is never, ever explored. So I wanted to give us some different gifts.

Where did the particular story of Paradise Blue come from?

[DM] For the cycle, I wanted to pick three eras in Detroit that were critical in changing the landscape of the city. 1949 was the year that a Housing Act was passed that eventually would lead to the wiping out of Detroit’s thriving Black business community called Paradise Valley. I’d heard my grandparents and elders speak about Paradise Valley, but I didn’t know much about it. I wanted to learn. What existed before I came along? That’s what made me want to write Paradise Blue—I wanted to tell a story about Paradise Valley.

How does the larger political context impact the characters in the play?

[DM] These characters are a community. They may not be rich and they may not have everything that the rest of the communities in Detroit have. But we hear how the characters depend on each other, and when they are leaning on each other, they are able to survive in the face of racism. I wanted to look at how a community gets divided, and participates either in its own salvation or destruction. For the character of Blue, urban renewal is happening at a time in his life where he wants an out, so he can take advantage of it. He’s not of the mind of everyone else in that community: he doesn’t see the value of it.

How do the specifics of this time period relate to the issues we still face in the world today?

[DM] This story speaks a lot to the gentrification and urban renewal that’s happening all across America right now. You’re especially seeing this in Detroit, so this play about 1949 Detroit is actually one of my most contemporary plays.

How do you hope the play will impact your audience at WTF?

[DM] I hope they are able to feel the heart of the characters. I think it’s anybody’s highest hope as a writer that a work allows you to consider an idea or a point of view you might never have considered before. For this play, it’s important to me that there’s an understanding of the heart and soul and frustration that goes into Black musicians who are trying to exist in a racist time—in an overtly racist time—and how that can sometimes eat those musicians and those artists alive. And I’d want people to consider how the tearing apart of a community maybe hurts people more than it helps them.