In 2015 Kristolyn Lloyd landed the role of Alana in the Off-Broadway premiere of Dear Evan Hansen, a role which, when the musical then transferred to Broadway for a Tony-winning run, marked her Broadway debut and pushed the entire cast into the national spotlight. But something else significant happened that year. An opportunity which, in 2018, has come back around and thrust Lloyd to the fore once more: a starring role in Dominique Morisseau’s Paradise Blue, now playing at New York City’s Signature Theatre.
When Lloyd auditioned for the role of Pumpkin in Morisseau’s Detroit-set drama in early 2015 for the play’s world premiere at Williamstown Theater Festival, she originally didn’t book it. She’d had her heart set on it, after falling in love with the script—devouring its 113 pages in under an hour. So when she got the call that there had been a change and the role was actually up for grabs, Lloyd jumped at the chance to originate the character.
Part of Morisseau’s trilogy of plays set in Detroit, Paradise Blue unfolds entirely in a jazz club called Paradise in the gentrifying neighborhood of Black Bottom in 1949. The story follows the lives of the club’s inhabitants: a haunted trumpeter named Blue, his loyal lover and the joint’s cook and waitress, Pumpkin, and two musicians who round out Blue’s jazz trio and are as permanent in Paradise as the beer stains in the wooden floorboards. Things start to spiral for everyone at Paradise when Blue gets an offer to sell the club and leave town—that, and the arrival of a mysterious newcomer named Silver.
“I’m always really excited by period pieces. But as a black actress, we don’t always get to embody different periods of time without the characters being painfully oppressed,” says Lloyd. “So getting do a period piece that had these people who had so much freedom and agency within their world, and who were such advocates for community, as well as an embodiment of what it was to be a successful black person in the 1940s… It was all very exciting.”
In her character descriptions, Morisseau describes Pumpkin as “Simple. Sweet. A loving thing with a soft touch,” who “adores poetry.” But don’t be fooled, she has one of the toughest roles in the show, primarily because she undergoes such a huge transformation.
“Pumpkin is seemingly put together and seemingly very happy and very indestructible in her joy,” says Lloyd. “The idea that she gets to have a complete arc [away from that]—she felt like a hero to me.”
Working on a new drama is a completely different gig to a big Broadway musical, explains Lloyd, which has been part of the challenge for the actor—but a welcome one.
“When I think about Broadway shows that are in the making for ten years and then finally see the light of day—often, one actor has been in the role for a predominant amount of that time, so by the time it’s on Broadway, [the role] has been lived in.
“One of the benefits of showing up and playing Pumpkin every night is that—yes, I’m getting to do it a second time—but there is so much to discover with new cast members and new writing and new outcomes within the script that it really feels fresh. Every night really is a challenge and that’s what excites me.”
The role itself, and the fact that she is now leading the cast of a serious drama, is also vastly different to her experience in Dear Evan Hansen.
“Both roles had their challenges... But I think the biggest difference is the amount of time Pumpkin is onstage versus the amount of time I was onstage in Dear Evan Hansen,” says Lloyd. “Once I enter the stage in the second act [of Paradise Blue], I never leave. So there is this greater demand of the audience and how we serve each other.”
Actors aren’t always afforded a breadth of opportunities so early in their careers and Lloyd is excited by the variety of roles that have come her way, both onstage and off. In addition to Dear Evan Hansen and Paradise Blue, she performed in the docu-musical Invisible Thread at Second Stage, the New York premiere of Heathers, The Public’s touring Hamlet as Ophelia, and on the hit TV series Madam Secretary; she also found time to assist Santiago-Hudson in the Encores! staging of Cabin in the Sky, and produced a benefit concert for people affected by Hurricane Harvey.
“I do feel as though the things that have come along job-wise are nice and varied,” says Lloyd. “I’ve really been very lucky. When I look back, I feel like a lot of wonderful stuff has asked me to wear a bunch of different hats that I’ve always wanted to wear.”
As for what’s next? Lloyd is just focused on finishing the acclaimed, twice-extended run of Paradise Blue at the Signature. Now through June 17.