Paradise Square Credit: Kevin Berne

After its 2019 premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Paradise Square, a musical conceived by Larry Kirwan, inspired by the music of Stephen Foster, directed by Moisés Kaufman, and choreographed by Bill T. Jones, has roared into Chicago for a month-long run at the Nederlander Theatre before it heads to Broadway in 2022. 

The year is 1863, the place Five Points (“the first slum in America”), a neighborhood in lower Manhattan where Black folks and Irish immigrants lived and worked. As the Civil War rages in the southern states, in Paradise Square, a saloon owned by fierce freeborn Black woman Nelly Freeman (Joaquina Kalukango) and co-operated with her feisty Irish sister-in-law Annie Lewis (Chilina Kennedy), life is loud and times are rough, yet humans are mostly peaceful in a place where Black and Irish mingle, dance, and intermarry. (Nelly’s husband is an Irish immigrant captain in the Union army, Annie’s husband a Black protestant reverend—shorthand for the probability that all the sloshes swarming the saloon are somehow someone’s cousin.) 

Paradise Square
Through 12/5: Tue 7:30 PM, Wed 2 and 7:30 PM, Thu-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM; also Sun 11/21 and Fri 11/26, 2 and 7:30 PM; no show Thu 11/25, James M. Nederlander Theatre, 234 W. Randolph, broadwayinchicago.com, $60-$116.50.

The trouble is the war, or rather, the pressures the leaders of any war place on those who do the fighting: the poor and 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 that pursuit. A draft announces that Irish immigrants—who aren’t yet citizens—must enlist. However, Black men who want to fight (and prove their citizenship, which they also don’t yet have) aren’t permitted to join. And anyone who has $300—or a year’s pay for the working class—can buy their way out. Thanks to the unfortunate combination of slimy politicians and frustrated, underemployed working-class white men—embodied primarily in the figure of irate Irish immigrant veteran “Lucky” Mike Quinlan (Kevin Dennis), who has lost an arm in the war and now can’t find work—the working classes are made to squabble with each other instead of seeing the wealthy and powerful pulling the strings. 

These unjust elements find their story in the characters of fresh-off-the-boat Irish lad Owen Duignan (A. J. Shively) and runaway slave Washington Henry (Sidney DuPont). Owen has come to stay with his aunts Annie and Nelly to escape the Great Famine and make his American fortune. Washington Henry has 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 journey to keep the foils clean—though there’s a sweet subplot with some singing Black lesbians on a utopian farm/way station on the Underground). 

Both have suffered, both are determined, and both are dependent on the safety of Paradise Square. And by the way, both can dance like there’s a fire on the floor—Owen with the sprightly, high-stepping patterns of the Irish, Washington Henry with the grounded stomp, slap, and roll of African American juba.

To make a long story short and to give us what we’ve been waiting for, the center of Paradise Square is a feis: a dance battle—where one winner will take home a bounty of $300: the price of freedom for one man (women can compete, too). But who will it be? Will it be Owen, whose bonny spirit sours in the face of imminent death in a war he has not chosen? Or will it be Washington Henry, who has spent a life downtrodden and never had a breath of liberty yet? Will the angry white men shouting in the streets succeed in inciting a riot in advance of the invention of social media? And who is that drunkard at the piano appropriating songs and stories from the oppressed? 

It would all be a bit pedantic if the performances weren’t so spectacular and the reenactments of historic tragedies so painfully contemporary. And yet the singing is blockbuster, the dancing is dazzling, and the reckoning that anyone sitting through this fable must undergo is as sobering as it ought to be. Kalukango is a forceful presence with a powerhouse voice as Nelly, and the rapport with Kennedy as Annie, who can blitz right from a belt to a head voice, is on point, all supported by an ensemble that sometimes splits into factions but ultimately coalesces into a community.

A note on the dancing: Five Points has sometimes been called the birthplace of tap dance, and Bill T. Jones is not exactly known for choreographing in that genre (Garrett Coleman, Jason Oremus, Gelan Lambert, and Chloe Davis are also named as choreographers). But Jones, who has won Tony Awards for Fela! and Spring Awakening, is known for a company and works that illustrate the beautiful possibility of dwelling in harmonious difference—even in the name of the company he cofounded with his deceased (white) partner Arnie Zane. Though the premise of Paradise Square includes competition, the glory of it is in complement, in the delightful joy of seeing dancers and humans juxtaposed in conversation and collaboration.