After its 2019 premiere at the Berkeley Repertory Theater, Paradise Square, a Larry Kirwan-designed musical inspired by the music of Stephen Foster, directed by Moisés Kaufman and choreographed by Bill T. Jones, roared in Chicago for a month at the Nederlander Theater before heading to Broadway in 2022.
The year is 1863, at Five Points (“America’s first slum”), a neighborhood in lower Manhattan where blacks and Irish immigrants lived and worked. As civil war rages in the southern states, in Paradise Square, a saloon owned by ferocious free-born black woman Nelly Freeman (Joaquina Kalukango) and cooperated with her fiery Irish sister-in-law Annie Lewis (Chilina Kennedy), life is noisy and times hard, but humans are mostly peaceful in a place where blacks and irish mingle, dance and marry. (Nelly’s husband is an Irish immigrant captain in the Union Army, Annie’s husband a black Protestant reverend – a shorthand for the likelihood that all the sloshes swarming in the saloon are somehow cousin to someone.)
Until 12/5: Tue 7:30 p.m., Wed 2 and 7:30 p.m., Thu-Fri 7:30 p.m., Sat 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., Sun 2 p.m. also Sun 11/21 and Fri 11/26, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. no show thu 11/25, James M. Nederlander Theater, 234 W. Randolph, broadwayinchicago.com, $ 60 to $ 116.50.
The problem is war, or rather the pressures that the leaders of any war exert on those who fight: the poor and the underprivileged. Here, the Civil War combines issues that remain unresolved a century and a half later: citizenship, race, economic inequality, belonging, the pursuit of happiness, and who exactly has the right to engage in this pursuit. A project announces that Irish immigrants, who are not yet citizens, must enlist. However, black men who want to fight (and prove their citizenship, which they don’t have yet) are not allowed to join. And anyone who has three hundred dollars – or a year’s salary for the working class – can buy his exit. Thanks to the unfortunate combination of slimy politicians and frustrated and underemployed white working class men, embodied primarily by the figure of angry Irish immigrant veteran “Lucky” Mike Quinlan (Kevin Dennis), who lost an arm during war and who now can’t find work, the popular classes are forced to bicker instead of the rich and powerful pulling the strings.
These unfair elements find their story in the characters of the young Irishman Owen Duignan (AJ Shively) and the runaway slave Washington Henry (Sidney DuPont). Owen came to live with his aunts Annie and Nelly to escape the Great Famine and make an American fortune. Washington Henry traveled the Underground Railroad to escape a plantation and create a life of freedom and self-sufficiency with his wife (who is conveniently separated from Washington for most of the trip to keep the leaves clean, though he there is a sweet subplot with some Black Lesbian chants at a utopian farm / walkway station in the subway).
Both have suffered, both are determined and both depend on the security of Paradise Square. And by the way, the two can dance like there’s a fire on the ground – Owen with the vivid, tall Irish designs, Washington Henry with the stomp, slap, and roll of the African-American juba.
Long story short and to tell us what we were expecting, the center of Paradise Square is a feis: a dance battle – where one winner will take home a bounty of three hundred dollars: the price of freedom for a man (women can also compete). But who would it be? Will it be Owen, whose bonny spirit soured in the face of impending death in a war he did not choose? Or will it be Washington Henry, who has lived an oppressed life and has never yet had a breath of freedom? Will angry white men shouting in the streets manage to provoke a riot before social media is invented? And who is this drunkard at the piano who appropriates the songs and stories of the oppressed?
It would all be a bit pedantic if the performances weren’t so spectacular and the re-enactments of historical tragedies so painfully contemporary. And yet the singing is a blockbuster, the dancing is dazzling, and the calculation that anyone sitting through this fable must go through is as grim as it should be. Kalukango is a powerful presence with a powerful voice as Nelly, and the rapport with Kennedy as Annie, who can go from a belt voice to a head voice, is perfect, all supported by an ensemble that sometimes splits into factions but eventually merges into a community.
A note on dancing: Five Points has sometimes been called the birthplace of tap dancing, and Bill T. Jones is not exactly known for choreography in this genre (Garrett Coleman, Jason Oremus, Gelan Lambert and Chloe Davis are also named choreographers). But Jones, who won the Tony Awards for Fela! and Spring awakening, is known for a business and works that exemplify the beautiful possibility of living in a harmonious difference, even on behalf of the business he co-founded with his late (white) partner Arnie Zane. Although the premise of Paradise Square includes competition, the glory of which is complementary, in the delightful joy of seeing dancers and humans juxtaposed in conversation and collaboration.