Set in 1863, Paradise Square takes place in the notorious Five Points section of 19th-century Lower Manhattan. In this unlikely neighborhood, an extraordinary thing occurred: Irish immigrants escaping the devastation of the Great Famine settled alongside free-born Black Americans as well as runaway slaves arriving by means of the Underground Railroad. The Irish, relegated at that time to the lowest rung of America’s social status, were welcomed by their Black neighbors. The two communities co-existed, intermarried, raised families, and shared their cultures more than one hundred years before the Civil Rights era. The amalgamation between the communities took its most exuberant form with raucous dance contests on the floors of neighborhood saloons. It is here in the Five Points where tap dancing was born, as Irish step dancing joyously competed with Black American Juba.
But as the Civil War rages on, this racial equilibrium would come to a sharp and brutal end. President Lincoln’s need to institute the nation’s first Federal Draft carried a fatal flaw: a $300 exemption fee that favored the wealthy. Unable to pay the exorbitant fee, which was as much as a year’s wages, and with right-wing anti-abolitionists fanning their fears about losing jobs to recently emancipated slaves migrating north, the Irish community first turned against the uptown elite before marching downtown to target Black citizens, homes and businesses. The resulting New York Draft Riots, which exploded over four days in the summer of 1863, are still one of the deadliest events in US history.
Within this galvanizing story of racial harmony undone by a country at war with itself, we meet the denizens of a local saloon, including the indomitable Black woman who owns it, a conflicted newly arrived Irish immigrant, a fearless runaway slave, and a once-great songwriter, who struggle with what it means to be an American while living through one of the most tumultuous moments in our country’s history. Paradise Square depicts an overlooked true-life moment when hope and possibility shone brightly.
The creative team includes two-time Tony Award-winner Bill T. Jones (choreography), Marcus Gardley (book), and Christina Anderson (book).