Friday, April 21, 2023

"What I Learned in Paris" at Penumbra Theatre

A few months ago, the Guthrie produced a Pearl Cleage play called Blues for an Alabama Sky, a lovely and ultimately tragic story about a group of friends living in 1930s Harlem. Now Penumbra is bringing us her play What I Learned in Paris, about a group of friends living in Atlanta in the '70s. This story is a little lighter, but not without depth. It begins on the night that Maynard Jackson was elected mayor of Atlanta, the first Black mayor in any major Southern city. Our group is filled with hope at the new world this event signals, but also aware that inequality still exists, in the areas of race and gender both. Director Lou Bellamy calls it an "insightful and often provocative romantic comedy," and this co-production with Portland Playhouse is fun to watch, while still exploring important issues that are still relevant nearly 50 years after this historic election. See What I Learned in Paris at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul's historic Rondo neighborhood now through May 14.

We begin with a celebration at the headquarters of Maynard Jackson (who is never seen in the play). Campaign workers Lena (an out-of-towner staying at the office, played by #TCTheater artist Vinecia Coleman), John (La'Tevin Alexander), and J.P. (longtime Penumbra company member Lester Purry) are drinking champagne with J.P.'s new young wife Ann (Portland native Lauren Steele, as far as I can tell no relation to Minnesota's Steele family). The drama begins when J.P. confesses to John that he and Ann are not actually married, a fact that could threaten his nomination to City Attorney, and which is also of interest to John, who is having an affair with Ann. More drama comes to town in the form of J.P.'s ex Eve (Cycerli Ash), who owns the house being used as headquarters. She's the one who was recently in Paris, after the divorce, and what she learned was to love herself and be the person she wanted to be. But does she still love J.P.? Does Ann love John enough to leave J.P., a potentially great man she feels obliged to support? Will J.P. fire John when he finds out about the affair? Where will Lena go now that the campaign is over? All of these choices are explored over the course of several days, as plans are made and changed and redirected.

Lou Bellamy directs the smart, funny, and yes, insightful script with lightness and humor, but also bringing out the depth in the conversations about race, gender, and the future. The five-person cast is an absolute delight, particularly Lauren Steele with Ann's thick Southern accent and tendency to burst into nervous tears, and Cycerli Ash floating gracefully across the stage as Evie, radiating joy and confidence (I'll have what she's having). She wears a number of flowy dresses and tunics, in contrast to Ann's conservative skirt/jacket combos and Lena's no-nonsense pants. John gets to show a little '70s flair, while future City Attorney J.P is in formal suits (costume design by Dana Rebecca Woods). The stylish '70s home turned campaign office is well represented in Vicki Smith's two-story set, complete with kitchen, couch, and table of full of phones and other campaign equipment.

I'm not sure I've seen a Pearl Cleage play before this year, and I like what I've seen. Both Paris and Blues have well-drawn, interesting, relatable characters, lovely relationships between friends, and a way of exploring life in the Black community in the 20th Century that is filled with joy and love despite the hardships.