Paradise Square – Sweeping
During the 19th Century, Five Points (Manhattan) was bound by Centre Street to the west, the Bowery to the east, Canal Street to the north, and Park Row to the south. Irish immigrants lived side by side with escaped and newly freed slaves, African Americans, and Italians. It was a uniformly poor, dirty, dangerous slum. Charles Dickens insisted on seeing the area when visiting New York. He wrote “Poverty, wretchedness, and vice, are rife enough where we are going now. This is the place: these narrow ways, diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth…” (American Notes)
Photo by Jacob Riis- Public Domain
The Civil War is revving up. Nelly O’Brien (Joaquina Kalukango) who is Black, was raised in Five Points eventually taking over her father’s saloon, Paradise Square. She’s able and strong-willed. Though bigoted tensions flare outside, sharing the same deprivation and often rootlessness, people accept one another at her establishment.
The proprietress is married to Irish born Willie O’Brian (Matt Bogart), who is White, inheriting his (White) sister Annie Lewis (Chilina Kennedy) and her (Black) husband, Reverend Samuel Jacob Lewis (Nathaniel Stampley). In the census of 1850, the word “Mulatto” appears for the first time, identifying children from a marriage between the two races, which was apparently common. A tearful goodbye finds Willie going to join the first Irish regiment in the country. “We’ll be back before you know it,” says his pal “Lucky” Mike Quinlan (Kevin Dennis).
Nelly (Joaquina Kalukango) and her sister-in-law Annie (Chilina Kennedy) Photo by Julieta Cervantes
Owen Duignan (A. J. Shively), a relative of Willie, emigrates from Ireland with stars in his eyes, while the Reverend’s nephew, Washington Henry (Sidney DuPont), a name given him to sound more American, is an escaped slave on the run. The young men arrive at Paradise Square looking for work and a roof. Urged to move on to Canada, Washington digs in to wait for his love, Angelina Baker (Gabrielle McClinton) from whom he was separated on the way north.
Owen and Washington are both great singers and dancers. An “updated” rendition of Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races” (non-plantation-like rendition) accompanies try-outs. Talent is clear. Owen and Washington will room together and perform nightly, accompanied by distinctively jittery Milton Moore (Jacob Fishel), a drunk on whom Nelly takes a chance for his useful talent. (Milton Moore was a pseudonym used by Stephen Foster.)
Washington Henry (Sidney DuPont), Owen Duignan (A. J. Shively) Photo by Kevin Berne
At the other end of the city’s spectrum is Frederic Tiggens (John Dossett), a White, uptown party boss who threatens Nelly and Paradise Square. Tiggins observes bonding between African Americans and Irish and is afraid of their joint voting power. Late in the play, he’s given the upper hand by the unwitting piano player. (A nifty plot twist.)
The first ever draft law causes seismic shift in race relations. Signage reads: All men 25-45 must serve or pay $300.00 or find a substitute. No coloreds, only citizens and immigrants. Soldiers’ names will be drawn by lottery. ($300 was equivalent to $6000 in 2021.) A phenomenal amount.
Under Tiggens’ influence, Nelly receives notice of exorbitant fines for trumped up violations. In order to raise money, she decides to hold a dance contest for which one must pay to enter. The prize will be $300. Both Owen and Washington feel confident about financing a new start with the win. Tiggens will attend for his own reasons.
Kevin Dennis, John Dossett (5th and 6th from left), A.J. Shively (6th from right) and Ensemble – Photo by Kevin Berne
Meanwhile, conscription pushes White working men into the streets for what became known as The New York Draft Riots of 1863. (Lincoln’s 1862 Emancipation Proclamation stoked bitterness and fury in those who felt jobs would be lost and businesses made to suffer.) Relations change when (as today) soldiers return from the war and can’t find work. “You were true to a country that wasn’t true to you,” Tiggens tells the now wounded Mike, goading him into leading a march whose size and vehemence he then finds shocking.
Demonstrations turned to destruction, looting, and violence, especially against Black men. Fifty public buildings, churches, homes of abolitionists, and a Black orphanage were ransacked or burned to the ground. Eleven Black men were publicly hung. President Lincoln sent troops from Gettysburg, but they didn’t arrive until the second day. Records show 120 died, 2,000 injured. Research by journalist Herbert Asbury who wrote Gangs of New York from which the Martin Scorsese film was made, puts the real numbers at 2,000 dead, 8,000 wounded. African Americans left the city in droves after the riots. March, 1864, New York City established the first all Black volunteer regiment in the union.
Nelly (Joaquina Kalukango) Photo by Kevin Berne
As agitators make their way downtown, Nelly is aware of the perilous situation. Triumvirate songs “Heaven Save Our Home,” “Let It Burn,” and “Paradise Square,” provide anthemic determination to survive.
All the principals are extremely talented. Both A. J. Shively (Owen) and Sidney DuPont (Washington) are marvelous triple-threats (singer/dancer/actor). The anchoring presence, vitality, and emotional investment of actress/vocalist Joaquina Kalukango is exceptional.
Paradise Square is historically illuminating and pithy in its approach. We get a feel for ethnic and class division as well as relatable, individual experience. An overcrowded company (too often on stage) and excess number of plot points diminishes impact, however. The piece could successfully be half an hour shorter. Cutting Angelina and eliminating or abbreviating a few dances would be a good start.
Music (said to be inspired by Stephen Foster) and lyrics are effective without standing out but for a couple of ballads and dances. This is sadly increasingly more common in musicals. Perhaps in this case an issue of too many cooks?
Overall, Paradise Square is worth seeing. Vocals, acting, and dancing are splendid. The production is great looking. Its story remains worthy.
Director Moises Kaufman can add this piece to his masterful record of character, pacing, and use of space. Collaboration with choreography is excellent. Company focus is notable. Leads are superb. There are numbers that would be better served by showcasing only protagonists.
Outstanding choreography by Bill T. Jones melds African American moves with Irish step-dancing and his own creative, precise and extreme utilization of limbs.
Allen Moyer’s scenic design, a large metal framework of open apartments and balconies, works wonderfully to include neighborhood ethos.
Costumes by Toni-Leslie James and hair and wigs by Matthew B. Armentrout are accurate and attractive. Jon Weston’s sound design is pristine on every front.
Opening Photo by Kevin Berne: At center, Kevin Dennis (with cap), Matt Bogart, Joaquina Kalukango, Chilina Kennedy, Nathaniel Stampley and Ensemble
Conceived by Larry Kirwan
Book by Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas, Larry Kirwan
Music by Jason Howland
Lyrics by Nathan Tysen, Masi Asare; Additional Lyrics-Larry Kirwan
Directed by Moises Kaufman
Choreography- Bill T. Jones
Ethel Barrymore Theatre
243 West 47th Street