There are so many good reasons to see What I Learned in Paris, which opened last week and continues through March 26 at Portland Playhouse.
First, it’s an intriguing window into Black history, opening during what is designated as Black history month (though, honestly, we need all the months to begin to make a dent in our vast collective ignorance). Playwright Pearl Cleage drew from her own journals from the time she served as press secretary to Maynard Jackson during his successful campaign to become the first Black mayor of Atlanta in 1973 to assemble this window into a moment in Black history, from the perspective of five Black characters. It’s not a history play; it’s (largely) a light romantic comedy–but What I Learned in Paris manages to playfully offer some insights into Black life, including what may be lost in the name of working for social change, like a commitment to the truth of one’s own experience.
Cleage offers us a multi-generational cast of characters–a seasoned lawyer, J.P., reaching a potential high point of opportunity and leverage, at a possibly unsustainable expense; a young woman, Ann, who seeks to carry forward the legacy of others but may be burying herself in the process; a young man, John, who is looking for a way to fight for both the cause he loves and the woman he loves; a smart and experienced woman, Lena, who makes everything happen for powerful men but may be missing opportunities to make space for her own voice; and a woman, Evie, who learned, in Paris, to claim a more genuine kind of freedom.
Second, this production is joyously entertaining. The performances crackle. The direction is tight enough to deliver the comic timing and moments of insight. The music cues trigger nostalgia in those of us who remember the time, and deftly set the mood. The set and costumes (by Vicki Smith and Dana Rebecca Woods, respectively) playfully evoke time, place, and character.
Third, it’s a feast of great performances by Black artists. The great Lou Bellamy has directed this show elsewhere, and I doubt he has worked with a finer cast. Vinecia Coleman, who may be new to Portland audiences, is the consummate utility player as Lena, watchful, generally the smartest person in the room, and perhaps the person most ready to wake up, feeling it first in her body. Her physicality is especially fun to watch. The great Lester Purry as J. P. embodies a particularly subtle form of power–brilliant and yet somehow missing a lot. Lauren Steele captures how lost Ann is, while also conveying that her potential still lives. La’Tevin Alexander is perfectly cast as John–desirable, strong, and not ready to be counted out even though often a beat or two behind.
But the show belongs to Cycerli Ash as Eve. She is the embodiment of female power recovered, in a community where the idea of female power needs to shift. In Cleage’s conception, Eve appears at first to be a diva–funny, beautiful, not to be denied. She may indeed be those things. But there is more there than meets the eye. For all her theatricality, Eve is also a seer. Having saved her own life from inside a form of idealism that made no room for her, where men held all the power, Eve has discovered that the way to true liberation can only be found with relentless commitment to the truth. Ash is a powerful performer who holds this well.
Which brings me to the fourth of the many reasons to see What I Learned in Paris. It’s a window into a history, funny, quick, and romantic–but it slides in some truthful insights. It’s not hammering them hard; it’s not pedantic. But there is wisdom here.