Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's recent review of Hamlet
Like Blues for an Alabama Sky, which is set in Harlem as the verve of the Harlem Renaissance was sliding into the Great Depression, What I Learned in Paris is set in a very specific time and place. In this case, the place is Atlanta, Georgia, the year is 1973 and Maynard H. Jackson has just been elected as the first Black mayor of a major southern city, capturing nearly sixty percent of the vote in a stunning defeat of his white opponent. The play takes place in the sleek mid-century modern home owned by Eve (called Evie throughout the play), which has served as Jackson's campaign headquarters. Evie has lived in California since her divorce two years ago from politically connected attorney J.P Madison. It is late, and the last four campaign staffers are winding down the victory celebration: J.P., Evie's aforementioned ex; Ann, a secretary turned campaign staffer who is half J.P.'s age as well as his new wife; John, a young attorney who works with and is a protégée of J.P.; and Lena, a get-out-the-vote captain in from San Francisco and bunking in Evie's house while working on the campaign.
Early in the play it becomes obvious that Ann is more drawn to the younger and fitter John than she is to her husband, and that John returns her feelings, though they manage to keep J.P. in the dark. This complication is compounded tenfold when Evie arrives unannounced. Evie swoops in, draped in silky, flowing garments, dyed copper-tone curls forming a regal crown, with balletic movements evoking the air of a wood sprite if a wood sprite could project the high voltage sensuality that radiates from Evie's fingertips. She is the epitome of a "free spirit," circa 1973. So why, after all this time, is she here?
Evie claims she has come to establish a society salon in upper crust (and all white) Buckhead, to bring together movers and shakers of different communities (i.e., white and Black) as a means to build unified support for the new mayor. J.P. thinks she is out of her mind, and at any rate, doesn't believe her. He declares that her sudden presence is "stirring the pot," though when Evie asks him "Exactly what pot is it I am stirring?" J.P is hard pressed to answer. Between the John-Ann-J.B. romantic triangle, J.P.'s political ambitions, Evie's sly machinations and her running chronicles of her transformative stay in Paris when her marriage to J.P. crashed, and Lena's no-nonsense approach to every bit of it–while bit by bit falling under the spell of Evie's mantra of self-empowerment–there is plenty of interpersonal intrigue to keep the plot busy before it ties itself up in a wholly satisfying resolution.
The result is an enjoyable, very funny romantic comedy, with threads of feminist empowerment and political gamesmanship woven into the cloth. What feels missing is the import of the historical moment in time, that ground-breaking election. It all takes place at the pinnacle of success, the elation of victory perfuming the air. What I Learned in Paris does not look back at how this victory was attained or what barriers had to be surmounted. Nor does it tread into the future with a glimpse of the legacy of Jackson's victory, the actual work of governing, and the inevitable gaps between promises made and the ultimate outcomes, politics being, as they say, the art of the possible.
The lessons Evie learned in Paris are all about personal self-actualization. While this may better position individuals to push for political and social progress, that possibility is not really explored in the play. That said, what is explored–bringing your full, authentic self to relationships and taking responsibility for your half of the dynamic–is done very well, with wit, charm and laughter. It is easy to have a wonderful time at What I Learned in Paris, but it is not likely to be eye opening.
Cleage makes Evie the hub of the plot lines, and Cycerli Ash gives a marvelous performance in that central role. It is a delight to watch her "play" with the other characters, pulling the emotional chords Evie is so adept at manipulating, while establishing herself as a font of truth and virtue. Vinecia Coleman makes a striking impression as Lena, dedicated to a life in politics and sensible avoidance of distracting entanglements, yet she makes Lena's gradual submission to Evie's spell seem totally logical. Ann is played by Lauren Steele, who conveys the stress Ann endures trying to measure up to J.P.'s expectations and hiding her love for John, while neither of those enable her to discover her own identity. All three of these women are interesting characters, and the actors do justice to their characterizations.
Lester Purry is highly enjoyable to watch as J.P., displaying blustery self-importance through most of the play, but the character is less interesting and more of a type. John is portrayed with great earnestness and likeability by La'Tevin Alexander, but he too holds less interest for us. Perhaps the lessons Evie learned in Paris resonate more deeply with women than men: to be a full person onto yourself and not need validation from anyone else, exemplified by being able to enjoy eating alone in a fancy restaurant. That may be why Cleage's female characters are more fully formed, even with both men in the cast giving top notch performances.
Director Lou Bellamy keeps the play moving swiftly and smoothly, with characters' near misses of one another coming close to farce, and he brings out all of the humor and humanity within the play. Vicki Smith's set design provides a comfortable locale that feels authentic for the time and place. Dana Rebecca Woods has designed costumes that reflect each character's persona, with a number of eye-catching ensembles for Evie, each reflecting the freedom she has achieved, while the prim wardrobe given to Ann underscores how much is wrong with the turn her life has taken. Don Darnutzer's lighting design helps to relay shifting moods and to focus our attention to meet the needs of the play. Popular songs of the era that could easily have appeared in an episode of "Soul Train" provide a rhythmic bridge between scenes.
As I have stated above, What I Learned in Paris is a wholly enjoyable play with a coherent script that holds many laughs, and a few moments of tenderness as well. Lou Bellamy has staged a buoyant production with actors who bring the story to vivid life–including a smashing performance by Cycerli Ash–making for a delightful theatregoing experience. That's a lot for a play to offer, and Penumbra delivers those qualities with generosity and finesse.
What I Learned in Paris runs through May 14, 2023, at Penumbra Theatre, 270 North Kent Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets are $20 - $45. For tickets and information, please call 651-224-3180 or visit www.penumbratheatre.org.
Playwright: Pearl Cleage; Director: Lou Bellamy; Scenic Designer: Vicki Smith; Costume Designer: Dana Rebecca Woods; Lighting Designer: Dan Darnutzer; Sound Designer: Scott Edwards; Properties Mistress: Julia Cervera; Technical Director: Zeb Hults; Associate Director of Production: Ron Schultz; Stage Manager: Mary K. Winchell
Cast: La'Tevin Alexander (John), Cycerli Ash (Eve), Vinecia Coleman (Lena), Lester Purry (J.P.), Ann (Lauren Steele).