Congo Square’s ‘What I learned in Paris’ offers wit, humor and a lesson on dining well
By Patricia Andrews-Keenan
What I Learned in Paris, the play by Pearl Cleage, interpreted by Congo Square Theatre Company takes place in 1973, the night of Maynard Jackson’s election as the first African American Mayor of Atlanta, GA. At first blush you wonder why Atlanta as a backdrop here in a city where Harold Washington’s legacy looms large. But you soon realize this is not so much a play about politics but rather relationships. This cast of five led by Alexis J. Rogers (Lana) and Shanesia Davis (Evie) is about the emotional and relational aftermath of a life-changing events on those who lived through them.
Cleage had a front row seat to the paradigm shifting election in Atlanta, and drew on her own experiences as Jackson’s speech writer and press secretary in crafting “What I Learned in Paris”. The comedy, directed by Daniel Bryant, Congo Square’s Artistic Director also features Darren Jones as J.P. Madison, Kristin Ellis as his wife Ann and Ronnel Taylor as Madison’s protégé John.
The play is set in a 70s era apartment with orange walls, psychedelic wallpaper, swirled rugs and African artifacts. The apartment plays a pivotal role in that it has been used as campaign headquarters where Lena has been staying. As such, there is also campaign paraphernalia stacked high in corners.
When the play opens on the night of Jackson’s election, assembled are J.P. , Ann, John and Lana. The champagne flows as they celebrate the victory and contemplate what comes next for the city and their personal careers. J.P. expects a lofty appointment and John is sure to follow him wherever this turn takes him. Lana expects to be off to the next city and the next campaign and Ann will take her place at J.P.’s side.
As the evening winds up, J.P. and Ann say good night and head home only for Ann to return for her scarf. This turns out to be ploy so she can see John and steal a kiss. Here we learn that as the campaign has progressed the two have developed a fondness for each other that, for John at least, is certainly love. All this does not escape Lana’s eye and as Ann leaves she asks him has he ‘lost his mind.”
The next morning we are met with a new arrival, J.P.’s ex wife Evie who is in from California after hearing about the election victory. The team has been using Evie’s apartment as campaign headquarters. We learn that J.P’s political aspirations took a toll on their marriage and she fled to Paris after the tripped they’d planned together fell through. Now with Jackson in office Evie has grand plans to become Atlanta’s premier hostess and sets about putting her plans into motion. Lana finds this all appealing and is in, at least for a part of the ride.
John is to return to meet J.P that morning but J.P. arrives first. It is here we learn that Ann and J.P, who were thought to have married in a quickie ceremony in Las Vegas, actually did not. According to J.P this is because he couldn’t bear a tacky ceremony with plastic flowers. The challenge is that J.P. is now in line for a significant post in the Jackson administration and can’t have this hanging over him. His intention is to marry Ann in a very private ceremony before the weekend is done. The challenge of course is finding someone who will perform the nuptials and keep their confidence. Lana also let’s J.P. know that Evie is back in town, which for him is less than a pleasant surprise.
He departs and John arrives. Lana, assuming that J.P. has already confided in him lets it spill that Ann and J.P. are not married. He of course doesn’t know why Ann has not shared this and sees it as an opportunity to ‘put his cards on the table’.
In the meantime Evie has found an ideal property to serve as the penultimate entertainment base for the new Mayor. The one hitch? It is in a previously all white part of Atlanta, but she sees this as no big hurdle. As Evie opens up more to Lana we learn about her sojourn in California including her efforts to embrace a free-spirited life of communal living, meditation and other Bacchanalian pursuits.
As you can expect, when Evie and J.P. do connect, he is less than enthusiastic about the situation, but Evie maintains her hard won west coast chill and even suggests that J.P. should seek the benefits of meditation. She also tells him her grand plan, including the purchase of the new home. Of course he thinks this is a fools errand, and says that too much change too quickly can only be a recipe for disaster. By this time Ann has also encountered Evie, and rather than letting this be oft putting to the ever nervous Ann, Evie offers to host a cocktail party for the couple to celebrate the marriage.
The cocktail party idea quickly morphs into a plan for Evie – ordained as a minister in California – to perform the nuptials herself, one that J.P. originally rebuffs but soon sees in the plan both the expediency and necessity. What we don’t know is that Evie has ulterior motives around her benevolence toward the new couple.
In the midst of confessions and insights about what Evie really learned in Paris each of the characters reassess their life directions and alliances. The play is about expectations, obligations, human emotions and the pull and tug destiny has on our lives. Ann feels the obligation she has to live up to her purpose as the first of her family to attain education and status. Marrying J.P. could be the apex of that calling, yet she is conflict, since her heart is leading her elsewhere. John on the other hand believes in love and is willing to “lay his cards on the table” in pursuit of it. Lana takes time to reassess her transient life on the campaign trail and Evie, at least under the surface, yearns for less excitement and more stability.
The acting is engaging, funny and very satisfying. Davis portrays Evie with wit, charm and a killer 70’s wardrobe. Her lengthy delivery of lines is done in an effortless fashion that is indicative of her theatrical chops and recognitions. Among them an NAACP Image Award, several Jeff Award nominations and the Black Theatre Alliance Award and Excellence in the Arts Award as Best Actress in Congo Square Theatre’s production of Brothers of the Dust.
Roger’s Lana is sassy and a great foil to Evie. She has been nominated for several awards and most recently won a BTAA for Best Leading Actress in a Musical for her role of Billie Holiday in Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar And Grill; a role which has garnered her a Jeff award.
Jones is adeptly stentorian in his role as J.P and Taylor gives John just the right amount of bravado mixed with trepidation. Ellis portrays Ann with lots of nervous energy and we cheer when she begins to find her purpose, rather than living out someone else’s destiny.
And what did Evie learn in Paris? Actually something we should all learn, “how to eat by ourselves in a big expensive restaurant.” Thanks Pearl Cleage for this witty satire and Congo Square for interpreting it so well.
“What I Learned in Paris” runs through February 7 at the Athenaeum Theater, 2936 N. Southport, Chicago, 60657. General Admission tickets are $35 and can be purchased by visiting www.congosquaretheatre.org or calling 773-296-1108.