By Eric Marchese | NB Indy Special
In 1973, years before writing her first play, Pearl Cleage was part of Maynard Jackson’s campaign team, helping him win the Atlanta mayoral election. As Jackson was the first black mayor of a major American city, he and his team have gone down in American political history.
Cleage remained Jackson’s press secretary and speechwriter. Almost 40 years later, she used her experiences as the subject of a play.
“What I learned in Paris,” however, is not about Jackson. Instead, the mayoral candidate’s campaign and victory form the backdrop of a story about those whose tireless efforts got him elected while advancing the cause of civil rights.
Now, Cleage’s engaging 2012 comedy-drama arrives in the South Coast repertoire, directed by Lou Bellamy. One of America’s most prominent black directors and producers, Bellamy returns to SCR after directing the January 2020 production of Donja R. Love’s “Fireflies.”
Segerstrom Stage’s production shines a light on playwright Cleage’s intelligence, perception and wit while showing how difficult it is for anyone caught up in historical events to put their personal lives on hold.
“What I Learned in Paris” picks up in the wee hours of election night in a downtown condo, the temporary home of Jackson’s political consultant Lena Jefferson (Celeste M. Cooper).
The delighted staff celebrate Jackson’s victory, realizing that black life in Atlanta is about to undergo a sea change. The shift in political power is also set to impact gender interactions for all: Everywhere, women were just beginning to take flight, and playwright Cleage uses the romantic interactions between four of her five characters to examine this changing dynamic.
Lawyer JP Madison (A. Russell Andrews), a Jackson campaign big wheel, recently married the much younger Ann (Kaye Winks). Things get interesting when we learn that on their recent trip to Las Vegas, they didn’t actually get married.
More intrigue brews when we learn that junior partner in JP’s law firm, John Nelson (James T. Alfred), is hopelessly in love with Ann. The pot is still stirred with the arrival of the first wife of JP Eve (Erika LaVonn) after two years in San Francisco.
“Evie” (as she is known) returns home to Atlanta, “the new capital of black America,” with plans that include buying property in a predominantly white enclave.
Cleage spins and processes various storylines for maximum comedic value and intrigue, even lending social commentary: JP eyes Evie with concern and sees her as disruptive to his plans to enter the political arena, and few can resist the delightful irony of older ex-wife Evie helps and imparts her wisdom to Ann, her ex’s new wife.
“Paris”, however, is much more than the “rom-com” label suggests. Cleage works in a number of intriguing comedic wrinkles, but also tackles larger concerns, making the play much more than just a rambunctious, light-hearted comedy.
Cleage deftly juggles the story’s plots, plots, and intersecting themes, his script brimming with witty lines deftly intertwined to give a pleasingly natural flow of dialogue.
The characters in the play attempt to put their lives on hold for their work, only to discover that no one can stop the flow of events, whether personal or historical, from occurring.
The title refers to a long-awaited visit to Paris long ago for JP and Evie – but JP stays behind to work. Evie travels alone, leading to a life-changing epiphany about how women can live and even thrive on their own, freed from the subjugation of their needs to those of men.
Cleage’s screenplay and SCR’s cast feature realistic, natural beats that make us feel like we’re watching real events as they unfold. Bellamy’s actors are dynamic, vigorous and playfully nonchalant, generating an authentic sense of black culture from a storyline rich in detail.
Evie is a dynamo charged with the three Cs – confidence, charisma and chutzpah – and the beaming LaVonn takes notice of the disparity between her character’s Haight-Ashbury appearance and her no-nonsense attitude.
Andrews also delivers a performance gem, tracing a satisfying arc from a skilled operator — great at talking, little at listening — to a sadder, more introspective middle-aged man struggling to decide if his future is with Ann. or Eva.
Winks’ meticulous and conscientious Ann is truly the young and still maturing young woman, and she, Bellamy, and Cleage deliver a believable arc during which the character gains wisdom and insight.
Alfred’s John draws sympathy from the role of the hapless John, waiting to see if JP and Ann are actually married, left to writhe in the wind, unable to declare themselves to Ann. Alfred shows how the story’s turn of events has a visceral effect on John.
Story stalwart Lena de Cooper is dedicated to her work, happy to watch her co-workers’ romantic shenanigans from the sidelines. Just as the character anchors Cleage’s story, Cooper anchors Bellamy’s cast, delivering lucid observations peppery and with a pleasantly minimal touch of irony.
Suits evoking the Dana Rebecca Woods era are JP’s ubiquitous brown three-piece suit and suitcase and Evie’s distinctive, counterbalanced outfit that SCR ensures we don’t consider simply a colorful fashion statement.
The story’s early ’70s setting is further mirrored by Vicki Smith’s scenic design of Lena’s condo and amplified by Bellamy’s choice of period pop music, much of it selected as sly commentary to the script and scripts. themes of the play.
“What I Learned in Paris” is heady with ideas and emotions, its politics fueled by the idealism that fueled so much the 60s and 70s – and still so relevant today.
Segerstrom Scene, South Coast Directory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Until March 19. Duration (intermission included): 2h20. Tickets: $26 to $93. Purchase/information: 714-708-5500, www.scr.org
Eric Marchese has written on many topics for various publications since the mid-1980s, but he is best known for his coverage of Orange County Theater.