Monday, March 23, 2015

In IRT's new Upper Stage production, Pearl Cleage's smart, ambitious black middle class navigates bumpy rapids in 'the flow of history'

Coming to terms with social change is more than a matter of choosing sides. The larger task is adjusting your sense of who you are to circumstances you have next to no control over.

That's what the four major characters in Pearl Cleage's "What I Learned in Paris" face in the bright historic moment of Maynard Jackson's 1973 victory in Atlanta's mayoral election. As the campaign crests in triumph, highly placed workers at headquarters — a spacious condo owned by the well-traveled Evie Madison — celebrate the reality and the symbolism behind the election of the South's first black mayor.

Evie (Erika LaVonn) and J.P. Madison (David Alan Anderson)
The problem at the play's center is romantic mismatch beneath the joyful surface. Can J.P. Madison,  a powerful, self-confident lawyer and Evie's ex-husband, make a likely ascent to the position of city attorney without a hint of personal scandal? It would appear there's something in the way: His publicly announced marriage to the ingenuous Ann never happened.

As the reasons why are probed, the fault lines in J.P.'s relationship with his friend and subordinate John Nelson are revealed. And machinations to rush a true wedding into reality encounter several obstacles. One of them appears to be the return of Evie from California, where she has become steeped in New Age ways and convinced that there's a place for her skills in the new Atlanta. And the further knowledge reflected in the play's title fuels her concept of the emergent strong woman she exemplifies. As she sweeps in to fulfill her destiny, she enlists loyal campaign worker Lena Jefferson to help J.P. and Ann tie the knot — which for good reason threatens to become unraveled.

Indiana Repertory Theatre patrons with long memories know how skillful Cleage is at stirring matters to a dramatic boil and emphasizing the gumption and grit of African-American women: Her "Flyin' West" was produced with great success at the IRT in 1992. In "What I Learned in Paris," she pits male ambition and the misplaced pride of self-sufficiency against the female genius for biding one's time, picking up cues from the environment, and rising to the occasions often clumsily created by male vanity and tone-deafness. The phrase "the flow of history" is on everyone's lips, but it means something extra to Evie.

Erika LaVonn as Evie was statuesque, robustly articulate, and domineering as seen in Sunday's matinee performance. She managed this assertive character's show of vulnerability beautifully in the second act. Cleage has fashioned a character here who struck me as a distant relative of Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell in "The Importance of Being Earnest." Wilde's imperious aristocrat applies her narrow view of social values worth upholding with the keen powers of observation and a gift for paradoxical wit that Cleage's Evie nearly matches.

There are two key differences: Evie applies her certainty from a broad perspective that reflects the currents of change swirling through the early '70s, and she is fatefully still in the game romantically, whereas Lady Bracknell is far above the battle, looking down. Evie almost seems to be too fond of holding forth to listen well, but that's a smokescreen; she's a marvelous creation — a model of attention to detail and an adept lay sociologist, whether she owes anything to Lady Bracknell or not.

David Alan Anderson dependably projects a larger-than-life aura that suits the character of J.P. Madison to a T. Used to being sure of himself and conveying that unmistakably to others, J.P. also is in a precarious position at the intersection of his personal and professional lives — which his ex-wife recognizes better than anybody. Anderson adds to his admirable record of filling to the max portrayals of men to be reckoned with, yet his performance Sunday was in no danger of glossing over J.P.'s weaknesses.

Playwright Pearl Cleage
Cedric Mays conveyed the torment, both romantic and political, of John Nelson, J.P.'s right-hand man and apparent rival. His physical acting — neatly modulated between aggressive and insecure — was marvelous in the scene when he decides to lay his cards on the table with his boss about the woman they seem to be competing for. That woman, Ann, was delicately portrayed by LaKeisha Randle; as the one naive member of the dramatis personae who wises up as the drama unfolds, she had an out-on-a-limb assignment that she handled superbly. Tracey N. Bonner as the campaign-support pro Lena Jefferson was a vivid blend of go-fer and shrewd ad-hoc assistant to Evie.

Director Lou Bellamy had his skillful cast working smoothly, aided by Cleage's canny manipulation of exits and entrances, every one of which is well-timed to advance the plot. For all its talkiness, this is a romantic comedy of exquisite timing. Its conclusion is in the time-honored tradition of its genre in having one couple you're rooting for finally get together and a second one, with more baggage to bring to a reconciliation, also close the gap.

Sets and costumes were lightly suggestive of 40-odd years ago. Between scenes, a fine selection of old-school soul music cleverly mirrored the action and evoked the era. It's been hard to avoid spoilers in this review, so let me just say that the positioning of "People Get Ready" couldn't have been better.

[Production photo credit: Zach Rosing]