Detria Ward as Eve Madison in What I Learned in Paris. Photo credit David Bray.
What I Learned in Paris
Written By: Pearl Cleage
Directed By: Eileen J. Morris
Starring: Yunina Barbour-Payne, Cynthia Brown Garcia, Kendrick “KayB” Brown, Detria Ward, Mirron Willis’
Company: The Ensemble Theatre
Run Dates: March 19 – April 12, 2015
In reflecting on the aftermath of his successful efforts to get the first African-American elected as Mayor of Atlanta, bombastic lawyer JP Madison remarks with bittersweet insight, “Before I wanted something for him, now I want something from him.” The him he’s talking about is Maynard Jackson, the real life historic figure who served two terms as Mayor of Atlanta and the when is 1973, the day after the historical election. It’s one of those pithy lines that make you sit up, take notice and think that – yes, this playwright has something important to say. Not to mention the idea’s relevance today as the United States reflects on what its first African-American President has done and meant for black America. But if you expect this notion or any of the other social/political issues swirling around the black community at the time to get treated as anything more than a throwaway line or two in Peal Cleage’s thinly drawn but entertaining comedy, What I Learned in Paris, you’re at the wrong play.
Cleage, who was a speechwriter and press secretary for Maynard back in the day, has drawn on the heady time not to school us on the struggle and successes of the era or to even reflect on how far or not things have come. Instead, Cleage gives us a by the books, sitcom-ish romantic story where new relationships are doomed and old flames ultimately win the day. Laughing rather than thinking is what this story is going for. Yes the missed opportunities are plentiful, but if you can put aside what this play might have been and settle instead for being mildly amused by what it is, all is not lost.
JP (an overly broad Mirron Willis) and Eve (Detria Ward marvellously putting the capital D in Diva and mixing it with a Flower Power sensibility) were once married. JP stayed in Atlanta to work with black political candidates and Eve went to find herself in Paris and San Francisco. They are reunited the day after Maynard’s election when Eve, hearing the news and wanting to contribute and be part of the action, comes back to Atlanta and the house she owns that is now being used as Maynards’s campaign headquarters. JP is coupled up with Ann (Yunina Barbour-Payne showing too little confidence in the role) a young woman in love with John (Kendrick “KayB” Brown giving a naturally terrific love-crippled performance) another member of Maynard’s campaign. John more than returns Ann’s feelings but is hamstrung because of his allegiance to JP and his belief that the two are legally married. Filling out the cast is Lena (a nicely understated Cynthia Brown Garcia) a get-out-the-vote professional who has made Eve’s house her home for the duration of the Maynard campaign.
While there isn’t much doubt as to who will eventually end up with whom, Director Eileen J. Morris keeps the pace quick enough that any boredom is easily brushed away by the expected yet amusing action on stage. The majority of the comedy comes courtesy of Eve, who is a stirring the pot force of womanly nature. When she isn’t dressing down JP for his “tone” she’s requiring that he engage in yogic breathing to make him more palatable to her. She is a character who believes that it’s always time for champagne and isn’t beyond moving onto stronger intoxicants. Sashaying around in glorious caftans of riotous hues, Ward gives us a charismatic performance that finds the funny in the familiar and conjures undeserved freshness in the dialogue.
At odds with Eve’s grand fashion statements is the rest of the set and costume design. It’s as though Morris’s team blew all their 70’s ideas on Eve and just didn’t have enough steam to be bothered with the rest of it. James V. Thomas’ interior house design that serves the entire two act show , with its mushroom walls, tastefully neutral microfiber couch and IKEA like color block art pieces looks like something out of the neutered 90’s not the swinging 70’s. The two storey effect, with its staircase that the performers stomp and down is a nice touch for visual diversity, but simply throwing a fern in a corner on the landing does not a period home make.
But if the set design is bland, Andrea Brooks’ costuming is confusingly inopportune. Other than Eve, none of the other characters seem to be channeling any 70’s sartorial vibes. Brooks clads the women in skirt or pant suits that look very similar to present day office wear and only gives us glimpses of the bell sleeved, platformed, poly-friendly fashions that ruled the day. But it’s the men that fare the worst here. Where are the large lapels? Where is the longer hair? The wider ties? The pleatless flared slacks? None of it is present on stage, sapping the characters from time and place and even further neutering the social significance of story.
In the end I suppose the design doesn’t matter much. What I Learned in Paris may be set in the 70’s against the backdrop of one of the most important moments in American black political history, but all of that is simply window dressing for what Cleage is really after – an African-American romantic comedy that doesn’t dwell too hard on anything but how to amuse. Like I said, if you can pack up expectations of anything beyond this, you just may crack an easy smile or two.
For social justice/political story lovers – The frustration of missed opportunities in this show will drive you mad. Not that there is anything amiss with giving meaning a comedic twist, but allowing the comedy to quash the meaning all together makes this is a no go for you. SKIP IT
For the occasional theater goer – Nicely paced light comedy with the barest whiff of social commentary might be up your alley this time. Despite the design disappointments, you’ll like the look and feel of the show and Ward’s Eve will give you many moments to remember. SEE IT
For the theater junkie – Even theater junkies deserve to sit back and just be easily amused once in a while. It’s too bad that this show tries to do it while ignoring all the potential it’s time and place offers. Ward and Brown are worth your attention here but there are also performance and design issues that will stick in your teeth. MAYBE SEE IT