As a native of Los Angeles, I was excited about connecting with the Geffen Playhouse, a major hub of theater in L.A. since 1995. The Geffen’s 25th anniversary season includes the West Coast premiere of Paradise Blue, in previews from November 9 and opening on November 18. Directed by Stori Ayers (Blood at the Root, The O.G.), the noir-inspired drama was written by Tony Award-nominated Dominique Morisseau (Ain’t Too Proud, Skeleton Crew).
Trumpet player and jazz club owner Blue (Wendell B. Franklin) is tempted to sell Paradise Club as gentrification comes to his Detroit neighborhood. As Blue wrestles with his demons and opposition from the band, what decisions will he ultimately make? What will become of Paradise?
I called Wendell B. Franklin before one of his rehearsals to hear more about his prep work for the production. I also asked him to drop some hints about what audiences can expect regarding the themes and subject matter of this story set in 1949 Detroit.
Franklin has performed at theaters all over the United States. His theater credits include Skeleton Crew (Atlantic Theatre Company, workshops at the Sundance Theatre Institute), Fences (People’s Light and Theatre Company, Arkansas Rep.), Brothers from the Bottom (The Billie Holiday Theatre), and Speak Truth to Power (The Culture Project) to name a few. His appearances on hit TV shows include The Good Fight, Madam Secretary, Elementary, and Law & Order.
Since we delve into the world of jazz with Paradise Blue, do you have a favorite jazz artist?
Of course, Miles Davis. I love Coltrane. Those would be some of the more classic jazz artists that I really like.
What’s one piece of advice you have for young actors starting out?
Decide that it’s what you want to do. Hopefully, there’s some important, compelling reason as to why you want to be an artist: something that you need or want to say desperately. Stay with it. There’ll be many folks for various reasons who decide to move on and do other things. Stick to it and eventually, you will get the opportunities that you probably are dreaming about. Work hard and take it seriously, like you would if you were a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer. Be a professional and stick with it.
Paradise Blue is part of a trilogy, The Detroit Project. You’ve done two of those plays so far. If you have an opportunity in the future, are you open to doing Detroit ’67?
Absolutely, on any opportunity to do Dominique’s work. I love her as a writer. What she has to say and the lives of these human beings are wonderful stories that she wants to tell. I’d love to do Detroit ’67.
Does working with the same collaborator, in this case Dominique, make it quicker in the process to get to the heart of sensitive and serious themes?
I don’t know. To an extent, there’s a trust and understanding in a relationship there that makes certain conversations easier. Maybe that makes it a little quicker. The process is what it is because you’re dealing with different human beings in the characters you want to inhabit, in their different circumstances. A process needs to unfold that cannot be rushed.
Could you share more with us about the research phase of the process?
First of all, in this process you have a dramaturg to provide information for the entire cast and creative team. We’re all singing from the same hymnal, so to speak. We’ve got information from the dramaturg about 1949 in Black Bottom, Detroit—Paradise Valley specifically. Then I also did research on music that was popular, stuff that I think would be more specific for Blue. I did a lot of research into what African American men in particular were facing in the 1940s, post World War II, and the kinds of opportunities they had.
The initial research process was more specific for me in that time about African American men, music and jazz, [and] conversations happening in the music. Leading up to the rehearsal process, you get a lot of information from the dramaturg. What you—all actors need to do ahead of time—is your homework.
Share what you think Stori Ayers brings to this production as your director.
Stori is such a pleasure to work with in this process. She is so smart as a human being. A lot of people are what we would call heart-smart or head-smart. Stori is a wonderful combination of both. Her research and analytical skills are incredible. She’s overturned every stone in the play. It’s always great to go to her to ask questions. She’s a wonderful collaborator in that sense.
Stori understands the integrity and dignity of these human beings. You know you’re in good hands. She’ll make sure that the authentic truth in the story of these human beings is told. She’s an actor’s director and also a wonderful, wonderful actress. That helps in building rapport and trust with her.
Tell us a little about the conflict Blue has to undergo in the play.
Blue, for lack of a better word, is a troubled man. He’s definitely grappling with a lot of demons. Often times we inherit these good legacies, but sometimes we inherit some very traumatic legacies. Blue has inherited a legacy of trauma. Grappling with that in the play, he’s trying to find some kind of peace. He’s in the midst of obligations and pressures from the band, pressures from the community, pressures from Black Bottom, and pressures imposed on him by trauma he suffered from his father, in particular. He’s trying to be a better person, but he’s grappling with demons in this play. It’s pretty heightened stakes and he’s taking one hell of a journey in finding peace or solace in his life, which is difficult at times.
Obviously we’re not running jazz clubs ourselves, but is there a parallel from Blue’s situation to what many people may be dealing with today? In some ways, the pandemic has opened up new conversations about our difficulties and problems.
I don’t think it’s necessarily a parallel [to what] Blue is dealing with. There’s no mental health diagnosis that he has. It’s not specific in the play. His father definitely did, ending up in an institution where he died. There’s some emotional and mental health issues that Blue is facing that there’s no treatment for, or at least none that was available to him or that he was aware of…folks today deal with pretty heavy stress and anxiety about the uncertainty of the world right now, our place in it, safety, and primary things that provide security for us. Blue deals with a lot of that mental and emotional upset.
Do you have any final thoughts to share with our readers about Paradise Blue?
There’s so much that could be said about this play! It’s an important piece. I think all of Dominique’s work is important. I don’t know what the audience will get because we all bring different things to theater with us. As they watch, some things resonate with different people, again, depending on where they come from.
I hope the story of love of community and sacrifice is clear and evident to people. That’s what we need more of now and we’ll need more of 20 years from today. We needed more of it in the past. I hope those ideas and messages ring clearly in the audience’s experience of the play.
‘Paradise Blue’ stars Tyla Abercrumbie, Wendell B. Franklin, Alani iLongwe, John Earl Jelks, and Shayna Small. It runs through December 12 at the Gil Cates Theater at Geffen Playhouse. Please visit the Geffen’s website to access the full performance schedule and to purchase tickets.