Pop theater quiz: Name a play that ties together romance, politics and the Black experience in America.

If “What I Learned in Paris” first came to mind, you get a gold star.

Pearl Cleage’s 2012 play, receiving a new production opening this weekend at South Coast Repertory, is a romantic comedy that revolves around Black folks enmeshed in politics and the civil rights movement in the Deep South circa 1973.

‘What I Learned in Paris’

When: February 19-March 19, 2022
Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
Tickets: $26-$93
Information: 714-708-5500, scr.org

And, by luck if not by design, the play arrives during Black History Month and in a month that also encompasses Valentine’s Day and Presidents’ Day – ideal for a play that sets romance against a backdrop of politics and the achievements of African Americans.

Further resonating with the play’s examination of Black Americans during a vital period in American history, and celebrating Black History Month all the more, is the fact that Cleage is one of the greatest contemporary Black American playwrights, and that Lou Bellamy, the director of SCR’s Segerstrom Stage production is, like Cleage, a prominent, celebrated Black American of the theater world.

He’ll be the first to tell you he’s a huge fan of the playwright’s work, something he shares with the Costa Mesa company’s artistic director, David Ivers.

Ivers and Bellamy’s history stretches back 32 years, when Ivers studied theater with Bellamy at University of Minnesota. He later became a protégé of the director, and the two have long since become colleagues. 

It’s the second time around for Ivers tapping Bellamy to direct at SCR. The first was the January 2020 production of Donja R. Love’s “Fireflies,” which got in just under the wire before the pandemic imposed theater shutdowns worldwide.

The SCR release states that the play “merges two vital factors and the unique perspectives of two stellar African American theater artists: Cleage, with her remarkable ability to tell a compelling, entertaining story through the eyes of ordinary people, and Bellamy, who throughout his career has demonstrated incomparable skill in directing plays with timely and relevant messages.”

 A Storied Career as Director, Producer, Actor and Educator

Bellamy is generally regarded as the pre-eminent African American theater director in the country, primarily by virtue of his role as the founder and artistic director emeritus of the Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota. During his 40-year tenure, Penumbra evolved into one of America’s premier theaters dedicated to dramatic exploration of the African American experience.

In an SCR press release, Ivers called Cleage’s play “an important work” and “a clever, funny romantic comedy that makes us laugh as it teaches us about a pivotal time in American history.”

Director Lou Bellamy (left) rehearses a scene from “What I Learned in Paris” with the production’s male lead, A. Russell Andrews. Credit: Photo courtesy of South Coast Repertory

Under Bellamy’s leadership, Penumbra has grown to be the largest theater of its kind in America. Perhaps the most significant of Bellamy’s and Penumbra’s 40 world premieres was 1977’s “Black Bart and the Sacred Hills,” the first professional production of a play by celebrated African American playwright August Wilson.

Bellamy established Penumbra as, and built it into, a leading producer of Wilson’s work. The company asserts that it has produced more of Wilson’s plays than any theater throughout the world. 

That includes all 10 plays in Wilson’s Pittsburgh cycle, each directed by Bellamy, who in 2007 won an Obie Award for directing Wilson’s “Two Trains Running.” Penumbra is also known for its stage adaptations of the works of Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes.

Not content simply to blaze trails running a theater company and producing and directing plays, Bellamy is also an accomplished actor. And as an educator, his understanding and knowledge of theater has influenced the last two or three generations of those who guide the nation’s professional theater companies: He served as an associate professor for 38 years at the University of Minnesota in the Department of Theatre Arts and Dance, where he and SCR’s Ivers first met.

Bellamy and Ivers’ Mutual Trust and Admiration

In recounting his ongoing connection with Ivers, Bellamy relates, “I knew David when he was in grad school so I saw him on stage there and, after (his) graduation, ran into him” at theaters in Denver and Oregon.

Ivers, referring to “Paris” as being billed as “reuniting” Ivers and Bellamy, told Voice of OC, “It’s not like Lou and I went years without being in touch. I was his student, then later we were colleagues. And every time I came across his work, I’d say to myself, ‘This is an artist of stature.’”

“I think the thing that’s important is that I’ve always admired him, and not just because of Penumbra. His demeanor, his knowledge, his grace has always been inspiring.”

Ivers notes the duo have long since moved away from simply being professional cohorts: “We have a friendship now.”

Over the past 50 years, Lou Bellamy has been a legitimate quadruple-threat on the American theater scene: a director, producer, actor and educator whose Penumbra Theatre Company’s mission is to explore the African-American experience through theater. Credit: Photo courtesy of South Coast Repertory

Bellamy mirrors these comments in saying, “Every time we would see each other you sort of catch up, ‘We gotta do something.’” That “something” wound up being SCR’s production of “Fireflies” just over two years ago.

The director says the mutual experience of having worked together on “Fireflies” led directly to SCR’s programming of “What I Learned in Paris,” saying, “We were both happy with the results (of ‘Fireflies’). There’s a trust that you begin to build up that you need to do ensemble work, and that’s the only kind of work that I’ll do.”

“The playwright’s always the star,” Bellamy noted, “and you have to have people around the project who are willing to park their ego and allow that to happen, allow the best interpretation of the work to live – and to do that takes trust, and trust takes time. So, you build that kind of trust between people on the project, and David and I have that.”

As an aside, Bellamy said he has long-standing working relationships with the leads of “Paris,” Erika LaVonn and A. Russell Andrews, having directed each in numerous previous productions. In fact, Bellamy cast LaVonn to star in “Paris” when he directed the show in 2015 at Indiana Repertory Theatre.

Cleage: ‘A Giant Who is Absolutely Brilliant’

As “Paris” has only been around for less than 10 years (it was originally produced by the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta in September of 2012), it’s a lot less well-known than many of Cleage’s other plays. Theater fans are intimately familiar with “Flyin’ West” and “Blues for an Alabama Sky.” Even “Bourbon at the Border” has received plenty of exposure through multiple productions across the nation.

“What I Learned in Paris” playwright Pearl Cleage. Credit: Photo courtesy of SCR

Bellamy bubbles with praise for Cleage, calling her “a giant who is absolutely brilliant. The amount of work she has put out, not just a voluminous, but a thoughtful collection.” (For the record, her output includes 17 plays, nine novels, three collections of essays and three more of poetry.)

Having read all of Cleage’s works for the stage, Bellamy produced and directed “Blues” during Penumbra’s 1999-2000 season. He said he speaks with Cleage “more than occasionally” – definitely the case while ramping up the new SCR production, including many a late-night phone conference.

And, this is his second time around with “What I Learned in Paris,” having directed it for Indiana Repertory Theatre in 2015. The play, he said, “manages to scale a sort of high-wire between being serious about the movement and the condition of African Americans, yet is absolutely hilarious and touches the heart the way good romantic comedies do.

“It’s a fun play and a wonderful play to be doing now after the kinds of things we’ve been through for the last two years,” he said.

Plays by Pearl Cleage

1980s: “Puppetplay,” “Hospice,” “Good News,” “Essentials,” “Porch Songs,” “Come Get These Memories”

1990s: “Chain,” “Late Bus to Mecca,” “Flyin’ West,” “Blues for an Alabama Sky,” “Bourbon at the Border.”

2000s: “We Speak Your Names: A Celebration,” “A Song for Coretta,” “Love Project”

2010s: “What I Learned in Paris,” “The Nacirema Society,” “Tell Me My Dream,” “Angry, Raucous and Shamelessly Gorgeous.”

Yet when it came time for Ivers and Bellamy to re-team, “What I Learned in Paris” wasn’t necessarily a slam-dunk. Of the Cleage plays he wanted to stage at SCR, “Blues” was the one that topped Ivers’ list.

Ivers said the answer to how he arrived at “Paris” is “complicated, so I’m going to dance around this – but I wanted to do ‘Blues.’” Ivers said that upon learning that “Blues” was being produced in Los Angeles, he “started looking at other plays by three other writers.”

“Lou and I kept talking about other plays, and Lou said, ‘You really ought to look at “Paris.” So one afternoon I read it again, and by the time I was done, I said ‘Oh, yeah, Lou is right.’ I called him and said, ‘Let’s do that one.’”

Ivers notes that he was “interested in Pearl’s play (and) interested in producing her for years, but because of the pandemic had only had one season at SCR. The pandemic hit seven months after I came to SCR, so, this is literally the first chance I’ve had (to produce a play by Cleage). I couldn’t have done it any sooner, and this moment, right now, felt like it was a beautiful time to have a joyful love story that wraps its arms around politics, race, and a lot about self-discovery.”

The Focus of ‘Paris’

Dissect the play’s events, characters, storylines and criss-crossing themes, and it’s easy to see the many reasons for Bellamy’s enthusiasm for it, his urging Ivers to give it another look, and Ivers’ eventual realization that SCR was about to deliver an outstanding yet essentially unheralded masterpiece to its patrons.

Set in Atlanta in 1973, “Paris” begins as Maynard Jackson has just been elected as the first African American mayor of a major Southern city, then takes you behind the scenes to the campaign operatives who helped push Jackson into prominence and get him elected.

In doing so, these various dedicated campaign workers made history while helping to transform Atlanta into the “new Black capital of America.”

The play reveals how historic events and personal interactions cause passions to ignite and lives to be turned upside-down, pulling back the curtain on office politics and overlapping love triangles. It was praised in the Chicago Tribune for its “whip-smart dialogue” and for being “funny and cunning.”

Jackson is not a character in “What I Learned in Paris,” but Cleage’s snapshot of his impact on this time in history and its enduring legacy across many dynamics provides a valuable lens into issues that have dominated the American political scene since the ’70s and which are still hugely important today, nearly a half-century later.

Cleage had a front-row seat for that pivotal time in American history, working as Jackson’s press secretary and speechwriter. The experience fueled her political passions while paving her path to becoming, as Ivers describes her, “one of America’s most important playwrights.”

Ivers characterizes the play as “delightful – first, it’s an example of Pearl’s sheer ability as a playwright as it weaves events from a vital time in our history – but it’s also a testament to Pearl’s, and Lou’s, ability to capture a specific moment in time and the universality of a struggle in this country. We’re seeing a Black America that still faces challenges, but Pearl’s play is the type of play that is joyful as well, and I love that.”

Ivers sees two points that are at the heart of the play: “First, love wins, and second, knowing one’s self is as important as discovering one’s self.”

Bellamy said he would like the experience of coming back to the theater “to be a pleasant experience for an audience, yet I’ll never do art that doesn’t have a sort of a social message or some sort of meat to it, and this play fits that bill totally.”

He adds: “There are so many issues in it, lots of the civil rights issues but on top of it a feminist statement that’s made that often gets subsumed by the civil rights drama, which is sort of what the play hinges on.”

Actor Erika LaVonn has the key role of Evie Madison, whose recollections of a visit to Paris, France reveal the meaning of the play’s title. Credit: Photo courtesy of South Coast Repertory

The title, Bellamy said, is a reference to the character Evie Madison (played by Erika LaVonn) as she relates her experiences while in Paris. Evie recalls seeing five Black models who were spotlighted at a major fashion fair and, as Bellamy notes, “watching the way these women were moving and the way Europe treated these beautiful Black models compared to the way they might be treated in America.”

Bellamy was asked to interpret the title’s meaning, saying, “I think it means to sort of get distance from the noise, the assault of life, so you can get a degree of objectivity.” He notes that many a playwright, including August Wilson, have tapped this device. Bellamy says that as Cleage poignantly points out, “It’s sort of that expatriate experience: Many writers went to Europe and found an appreciation for their work that racism and small-mindedness made impossible in the U.S.”

Bellamy and Ivers Analyze the Play

Asked if any of the play’s themes resonate more now than when it was first written and produced, Bellamy replied, “I think so. It’s so relevant. The women’s issues inside of all of this present a relationship between a husband and wife that one has to come to terms with.”

“I remember once meeting one of the folks who were in the Black Panthers, and it was a hegemonic kind of existence for women, who were put in subservient positions. It isn’t quite that vile, but you can see the way a woman feels that her needs, what she expects from a mate, might take second place to the larger concerns that the race is addressing. So they have to suss that out. It forces you to root for them; you want to see them make it because you can see the tremendous cost it has.”

When asked the same question, Ivers said he was “struck today by the comings and goings of people (the show’s characters). The play is set in 1973, so there’s a kind of freedom of coming in and going out that doesn’t involve masks and COVID tests. It has an intimacy to it. It specifically feels refreshing, and that’s not something I’d say unless I’d been through COVID.”

What is the prime significance of the show? “I think it allows an audience to see people living their lives, staying in the (civil rights) movement, being responsible, making mistakes. Martin Luther King is dead. Malcolm X is dead. And we’re seeing the play’s characters waiting for a leader to emerge.”

“What you see in this play is that the people who rose to meet those significant challenges weren’t any different than you and I – just normal everyday people who have affairs, have children, live life, fall in love, break up, all that kind of stuff. They’re trying to live life while in the movement, if you will, and there’s a cost associated with that.”

Weighty concepts to ponder, to be sure, but Bellamy is quick to note that “What I Learned in Paris” expertly meshes drama and comedy with an exceptional degree of skill.

The play, he said, provides us “a chance to see the funny side and the fear of being inside of the movement fighting for social change, and the personal as well as the familial cost of doing so. The take I’ve just described is serious, but the play is hilarious – so smart and so funny, and we have such a wonderful company.”

Bellamy continued, “I cut my teeth doing heavy drama, but really wanted to show you can do both, to let people have some fun and make ’em laugh. Plays are most successful when a director can make an audience mix emotions, to get them laughing and make them cry – and they never forget it. I’ve tried to do that with this piece. I hope it leaves them happy and feeling good.”

Eric Marchese is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at emarchesewriter25@gmail.com.

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