REVIEW: "What I Learned in Paris"—South Coast Repertory
Updated: Mar 25, 2022
Delightful Entertainment, More Romantic Than Political
Only five years after Atlanta son Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, Vice Mayor Maynard Jackson audaciously challenged the incumbent Mayor Sam Massell, and won with almost 60 percent of the vote.
In late October, 1973, at the age of 35 he became, in his own words, “the youngest, the fattest, and the blackest mayor of Atlanta.” From that moment on, everything was different. Everything changed. As someone said, “you can’t stop the waves, you can only learn to surf.”
It was a time of bellbottoms, platforms, circular sunglasses, feathered hair and afros. Hippies, beads and tie dyes. It was the “Me” decade. The Beatles broke up; Nixon resigned. “Jaws” opened in theaters, and the video game “Space Invaders” was released.
It was a time when many wheels were turning – both in political juggling and social justice struggles. Feminist, anti-war, and anti-environment movements were heating up the atmosphere – so were gay rights groups. Bernie Sanders, more prominent then than even now, made the same “save the environment” speech from a yellow pad over and over throughout the decade.
The sexual revolution (pre-AIDS) was in full swing. It was a heady time to be young, gifted, black or white in Atlanta. But right now, it’s 1973. This is the year that Maynard Jackson became Mayor of Atlanta, and it was a very exciting time. Even national civil rights figure Jesse Jackson called Mr. Jackson's victory “the fruits of a political renaissance.”
Maynard Jackson’s mayoralty served as a giant stride forward for Black America-jobs, empowerment, and political office. His major accomplishment was the construction of the new Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport terminal “ahead of schedule and under budget.” When he died in 2003 at the age of 65, he was mourned at an Atlanta Civic Center memorial that drew a crowd of more than 5,000.
Pearl Cleage (author: “What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day,” an Oprah Book Club pick) was a speechwriter and press secretary to the Mayor in those days, and she has drawn on her affectionate memories of the time and has created a “political romance” set in Atlanta (not Paris, despite the title). “What I Learned in Paris,” was actually only the beginning of Cleage’s legacy as an integral part of the next half century of Black leadership in Atlanta, as well as the civil rights movement’s efforts to enfranchise political space for Black southerners. The play is currently running at South Coast Repertory (in their 58th season), through March 19th on the Segerstrom Stage.
“We won!” she writes in her diary on that momentous fall night: “Strange how we seem to feel the city will change overnight. I already know that working in this campaign has changed my life. The question will be how?”
Designed as a romantic comedy in the same vein as perhaps "The Jeffersons," the play delves freely in the politics of race, class, and gender at the time Atlanta was fast moving from a Southern Gothic city to a cosmopolitan modern metroplex. Facilitating that evolution was, of course, the election of Jackson as this city’s first Black mayor. From now on, whether they are aware or not, every Black person in Atlanta in some way represents Maynard Jackson. Overnight, the premiere city of the New South has become “the new Black capital of America,” presaging other big mayoral victories for Black political candidates.
Mostly factual, with embellished dialogue, Cleage's "What I Learned in Paris" is directed by Lou Bellamy (Dir: “Fireflies”), and features five top-level actors as the mayor-elect’s inner-circle, including enabler Lena Jefferson (Celeste M. Cooper; NYTimes critic’s pick: “Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!”) as the staff election coordinator who sees all and greases the wheels of political action, and the handsome John Nelson (James T. Alfred; Broadway Tour – “Jitney”), a staff election operative, who has a thing for his boss's wife.
During the election run-off, both are staying at the mayor-elect’s chief adviser J. P. Madison’s (LA Ovation Winner A. Russell Andrews; “Piano Lesson”) old condo that was up for sale. Madison is a high-powered broker-type attorney, a recently remarried divorcé, and much given to portentous, self-important statements like…“now we have to rise to meet the demands of history.”
Six months ago, he and a colleague, Ann Madison (Kaye Winks; “She the People: Girlfriends’ Guide to Sisters Doing it for Themselves”), press coordinator for the campaign and less than half his age, decided to do a quickie Vegas plighting of their troth without anyone knowing it. Only time will tell if those nuptials stick. And, in all fairness to Ann, Ms. Winks plays her as a young idealist who has a great deal of self-discovery yet to do.
And finally, as the undisputed star of the play, there’s Eve Madison (Erika LaVonn; SCR: “Sheepdog”), J. P.’s first wife, brassy, bejeweled and bigger than life, who in response to the Jackson election, breezes unannounced back into town after her post-divorce decampment to San Francisco, sensing that a grande dame of her culture and sophistication may be just what Atlantans of all races need right now to start learning how to get along and share living space and political power. Here is a woman who knows how to make an entrance. She has the confidence, charisma, and wit of a Dolly Levi, as well as Dolly’s tendency to, shall we say, benevolently meddle.
“Evie” (as J.P. calls her), has found inspiration in the city of Paris. You can not escape the romance of Paris. There, Eve has the courage to be herself, to love herself, and the intoxicating freedom that comes with always telling the complete truth. It’s hard not to become captivated with such a person. Or, with such a city.
The result is delightful entertainment, more romantic than political. Mr. Bellamy’s direction is smooth and sure. The veritable detail in Vicki Smith’s set shows the comfortable interior of a doyenne’s Atlanta home in the early 1970s, decorated discerningly. The space had been used as Jackson campaign headquarters, so has a somewhat lived-in look, with placards and rally signs lying about.
As major scenes end, correlative sound design by Jesse Mandapat features a number of period songs from that decade, bringing much ambiance and nostalgia to a baby-boomer audience. And Dana Rebecca Woods’ stylish 70's costume design is spot-on authentic with easy-to-dress attorney suits, pantsuits for the ladies, and an ultra-colorful mix of silks, scarves and chiffon-like capes for the Lady Madison’s character, ornately modeled by Ms. LaVonn.
The tight ensemble work makes the cast’s work highly indivisible, and all five actors are integral to the whole, with each having many stand-out moments. I would not feel comfortable bolstering one over the other. I will say that all of the players presented realistic characters and superbly executed action; and all seemed to click with much chemistry.
As far as the mayor himself, we never really meet him, and he quickly becomes beside the point. In the end, the denouement of the play was all about what happens to Eve and her story of awakening, what happens to John and Ann, who’s still on first base…and does anybody ever go to Paris? Luckily, as of today, you’d got five more chances to find out.
SOUTH COAST REPERTORY PRESENTS – WHAT I LEARNED IN PARIS BY PEARL CLEAGE; Directed by LOU BELLAMY; Scenic Design by VICKI SMITH; Costume Design by DANA REBECCA WOODS; Lighting Design by DON DARNUTZER; Sound Design by JESSE MANDAPAT; Stage Manager KATHRYN DAVIES; Casting JOANNE DeNAUT CSA; Artistic Director DAVID IVERS; Managing Director PAULA TOMEI; Founding Artistic Directors – DAVID EMMES & MARTIN BENSON; Dramaturg MACELLE MAHALA; Honorary Producers – MICHAEL RAY; JEAN & TIM WEISS; U.S. BANK FOUNDATION.
WITH: JAMES T. ALFRED as John Nelson; A. RUSSELL ANDREWS as J.P. Madison; CELESTE M. COOPER as Lena Jefferson; ERIKA LaVONN as Eve Madison; and KAYE WINKS as Ann Madison.
PRESENTED FEBRUARY 19-MARCH 19, 2022 ON THE SEGERSTROM STAGE. Approximately two hours and 20 minutes including one 15-minute intermission. COVID-19 Safety Protocols apply. Tickets may be purchased online at www.scr.org
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Jenny Graham