By Manning Harris
fmanningh@gmail.com

On the opening night of Pearl Cleage’s new play “What I Learned in Paris,” running at the Alliance Theatre through October 6, Director Susan V. Booth asked the audience how many were alive in 1973.  I would say less than half raised their hands (I raised mine; of course I was very young at the time).  But this is the year that Maynard Jackson became Mayor of Atlanta, the first African-American to hold the office; and it was a very exciting time to be here.

Feminist, anti-war, and anti-Nixon movements (as writer Kathy Janich points out in the program) were heating up the atmosphere; so were gay rights groups.  The sexual revolution (pre-AIDS) was in full swing.  It was a heady time to be young, gifted, black or white in Atlanta. 

Pearl Cleage was a speechwriter and press secretary to the Mayor; she has drawn on her affectionate memories of the time and has created a “political romance” set in Atlanta (not Paris, despite the title).

There is J.P. Madison (Danny Johnson), a power broker who seems in line for city attorney; his young wife Ann (Kelsey Scott), who is currently being wooed by the ardent John (Eugene H. Russell IV), a lawyer and campaign worker).  Lena (January LaVoy) is a brainy, independent campaign worker who finds herself in the middle of  romantic machinations (and there’s a secret or two I cannot share here).

And then there’s Evie, gorgeously played by Crystal Fox.  Evie is J.P.’s ex-wife and has been living in California, but she suddenly shows up so she won’t miss all the excitement brewing in Atlanta.  Here is a woman who knows how to make an entrance.  She also knows how to wear clothes (kudos to costume designer Lex Liang).  She has the confidence, charisma, and wit of Dolly Levi, as well as Dolly’s tendency to, shall we say, benevolently meddle.

Evie has found inspiration in the city of Paris, as well as the courage to be herself, to love herself, and the intoxicating freedom that comes with always telling the complete truth.  It’s hard not to fall in love with such a person, and I daresay much of the audience does—as well as, I believe, her creator, Ms. Cleage.  Evie is a star part, and Ms. Fox does her proud.

The result is delightful entertainment, more romantic than political.  The actors are charming and professional; Ms. Cleage has a wonderful gift for fine, fluid dialogue.  Ms. Booth’s direction is smooth and sure.  The cool set design of a Midtown condo reminds me of a large apartment I once saw at a place called Riverbend, which during the 70’s was well known as a party-central kind of place just on the civilized side of I-285.  (Kidding—Evie might say something like that.)

By the way, I would like to have seen more of Mr. Russell, an actor small of stature but large of talent, but John (his character) vanishes for quite a stretch.

It  is, however, a fun evening; the Alliance is off and running.

For more information, visit www.alliancetheatre.org.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.