Know Thyself. This Socratic axiom encompasses the struggles of the characters in Pearl Cleage’s world premiere What I Learned in Paris at the Alliance Theatre.
Set in 1973 Atlanta against the backdrop of Maynard Jackson’s mayoral election, the play revolves around the romantic relationships of a group of campaign workers. The dawn of a new era in Atlanta provides a strong metaphor for the awakening that several of the characters experience, which is more of the play’s focus rather than dissecting any race or political statements of the period, except for feminism.
The backdrop of a group of disenfranchised citizens gaining empowerment could translate very well into any group whether it would be the election of a Catholic mayor or a gay one to put it into a modern context. However, the celebration of the “magic of feminism,” makes this play, billed as romantic comedy, one that also examines the roots of the feminist movement.
This idea becomes the dominant theme right from the opening dialogue when Ann (Kelsey Scott) is discussing her conversation with an NBC reporter. After describing an exchange that leaves the reporter frustrated, Ann states, “He said Let me talk to a man.” However, it is when Evie Madison (Crystal Fox), arrives that the idea takes center stage.
In the character of Evie, Cleage has crafted an empowered, liberated woman, and with this role the brilliant Fox takes advantage of another chance to show how talented she is. She embodies the character and gives her a pizzazz that shines brighter than any of her elegantly patterned outfits.
After her marriage to J.P. Madison (Danny Johnson), a prominent attorney and political activist, fell apart, Evie embarks on a one-woman trip to Paris, where she undergoes a renaissance and becomes the free, self-assured woman that she is during the events of the play.
Evie, who inserts herself as sort of mentor, attempts to spur Ann’s own renaissance if she doesn’t drive her ex-husband crazy doing so. But, Ann and J.P.’s own relationship has its secrets and struggles to overcome in the process. All this is happening while J.P. celebrates being on the short list to be city attorney, causing him to fear the situation could derail his chances.
Directed by Susan V. Booth, the cast displays considerable talent, but it is Fox who steals the show. Providing a worthy adversary for her strong character, Johnson’s J.P., who tends to be more of stock chauvinist at times, displays a strong persona, and his comedic moments elicit strong laughter from the opening night audience.
Funny, thought-provoking and engaging, the play will have a strong appeal to average theater patrons, especially women. In fact, it is play that celebrates womanhood and empowers women to love themselves. Long-time Atlantans will also enjoy hearing nostalgic references, including the legendary Paschals.
The world premiere of What I Learned in Paris by Pearl Cleage plays at the Alliance Theatre through October 6, 2012. For tickets and more information, please visit the theater’s website. The show’s runtime is a little over two and a half hours plus a fifteen minute intermission.
– Kenny Norton