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Before there was Obama there was Maynard Jackson, the first African-American mayor of a major U.S. city, elected in Atlanta in 1973. Playwright Pearl Cleage was a witness to history, serving as speechwriter and press secretary to Jackson, an experience she drew on for her 2012 play, What I Learned in Paris, making its West Coast premiere at Burbank’s Colony Theatre.
The play’s single set is the living room and kitchen area of a middle-class home whose dun-shaded walls are adorned with African tribal masks, while terra-cotta pots line the shelf above the kitchen cabinets. One corner is occupied by a messy desk covered with election flyers, while signs with political slogans are stacked nearby. After reading the program bio of Jackson, the audience braces for an evening of political drama. Instead, they are treated to a screwball comedy — minus the comedy.
On the eve of Jackson’s election, his right-hand man, J.P. Madison (William C. Mitchell), is joined by his young wife, Ann (Joy Brunson), his protege, John (Shon Fuller), and get-out-the-vote campaigner Lena (Karan Kendrick). As the evening winds up, J.P. and Ann take their leave. But she returns for her scarf and, when she thinks no one is looking, a furtive kiss from John.
Corks are popped and champagne flows when votes are tallied and Jackson emerges the winner. But Cleage puts history in her rearview mirror as she gets down to the serious concerns of her love triangle, pitting wise old bloviator J.P. against bright, young earnest John for sweet Ann’s affections.
It seems trite that this should be the core of the playwright’s drama; the irony of inconsequential coupling and uncoupling set against ground-shifting events would be better suited to comedy. But Cleage chooses to play it straight, hamstringing a production that already suffers from tonal inconsistency.
A hurricane blows into town in the form of J.P.’s ex-wife, Evey (L. Scott Caldwell). A Tony winner for Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (not to mention a familiar face to TV viewers from shows including Lost, Southland and The Secret Life of the American Teenager), Caldwell plays a chanting Earth mother from California — a former actress who commands the room with a mix of charm, wisdom and good humor.
Evey is a plum role festooned with nostalgic monologues and nuggets of wisdom, but in Caldwell’s hands it’s emblematic of what plagues this entire production. She bellows through her first scene as though she were at the Rose Bowl, though eventually settles down to deliver some measured and heartfelt passages following intermission.
Director Saundra McClain displays a sure hand blocking her ensemble amid Charles Erven’s utterly convincing early ’70s set, which, like Dianne K. Graebner’s costumes, captures the period without a hint of pastiche. Compositions shift naturally from the kitchen to the living room to the wet bar, the stairs stage right, or the front door opposite. But individual performances sometimes lack nuance, with McClain’s cast often telegraphing rather than implying their inner lives.
Much of this is leavened by Cleage’s sagacious way with words, and epigrammatic pearls like “There’s no greater cynic than a failed romantic” (a variation on George Carlin’s “Scratch a cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist”). Later, when Evey recalls an epiphany of self-discovery in Paris, she tells J.P., “Marriage is the death of love.”
What she learned in Paris is that happiness doesn’t come from others but from finding contentment within. It’s a message that transcends race or gender, just as the play itself could be cast with actors of any ethnicity and would work just as well.
Outstanding production design, able actors and compelling dialogue indicate an abundance of talent behind What I Learned in Paris, but its two-and-a-half-hour running time could probably benefit from cutting. Some refinement of the performances also might help make a noteworthy production an unforgettable one.
Cast: L. Scott Caldwell, William C. Mitchell, Karan Kendrick, Shon Fuller, Joy Brunson
Director: Saundra McClain
Playwright: Pearl Cleage
Set designer: Charles Erven
Lighting designer: Jared A. Sayeg
Costume designer: Dianne K. Graebner
Music and sound designer: Dave Mickey
Presented by the Colony Theatre
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