When a show lists a Trauma Counselor in the credits and has a “healing space” outside of the theater proper, you know you are in for an intense experience. Kill Move Paradise will make you feel like you’ve been holding your breath for 75 minutes.
That edge of your seat, breath-caught feeling is fitting, but also ironic given that Kill Move Paradise is so much about breath and breathing. Patrons are asked to take a deep, joyful, collective breath before the play starts, and another cleansing breath when the play ends.
The four characters Isa (Dylan J. Fleming), Grif (Jonathan Del Palmer), Daz (Christian R. Gibbs) and Tiny (Tendo Nsubuga)—take huge, gulping breaths every time they enter a new phase of their journey through a way station to the afterlife, stunningly imagined as a celestial skateboard ramp by scenic designer Debra Kim Sivigny in cool gray, cloud colors and shiny surfaces. A retro news wire machine in the corner blurps out pages and pages of names, reams of paper pooling on the floor.
Harold F. Burgess II’s lighting design and Kevin L. Alexander’s sound design recreate lightning, thunder and other climate effects so realistically audience members were startled out of their seats.
The four young black men are deposited down the ramp as if they are throwaways tossed down a chute. At first, like Sisyphus, they mightily try to scale the ramp and escape their fate. Eventually, with the support of the others, they realize resistance is futile, and start to think about what happened, and is happening to them.
Isa serves as a guide, more of an elder and peacemaker to the group. Isa is the gentleman, Grif is the scholar, high school valedictorian and a big-picture thinker. Daz is a street-smart dazzler, angry and defiant. Tiny is a young boy, brimming with potential.
Kill Move Paradise closes March 8, 2020. DCTS details and tickets
All four men were in the wrong place at the wrong time—either DWB (driving while black), unfairly targeted plying their trade or playing in the park. None of them are guilty of anything but being black and male.
“I remember the age I learned I was scary,” says Isa. “I was 8.” This line repeats throughout the play as the characters confront the audience directly as to why we are so afraid of the young black male.
Why are we? Is it cultural conditioning, the news, reflexive racial profiling? What is it? This question tears at you throughout Kill Move Paradise.
Playwright Ijames takes a tone poem approach to the issue of race and the epidemic of murdered black men that is both exhilarating and uncompromising. The actors portray black stereotypes and give them an edge, especially when playing “shuck and jive” cakewalk singers and dancers, as well as stock sitcom characters ostensibly in order to make the audience feel more comfortable. However, the opposite happens, as the audience is forced to reflect on why we so readily accept and laud black men in entertainment mode and little else.
With this play, Ijames wants you to look, really look, at the four lives standing in front of you as well as look deep inside yourself to consider the monster within, the beast that makes you cross the street when a group of black kids come toward you, to take another elevator, whatever involuntary action you take without thinking.
The play echoes the cycle of violence motifs in ancient Greek tragedy, Samuel Beckett’s spare dialogue and existential angst, Bertolt Brecht’s breaking of the fourth wall and direct address. I also couldn’t stop thinking of August Wilson, whose 10-play cycle of African American history in the last century told overlapping, accreting stories of everyday men and women just doing what they do.
In telling these stories in the context of an enslaved past, Wilson is telling us that the people in his plays matter, they count, they were here and they touched countless lives and their actions ripple out into the present and future like currents in a river.
In Wilson’s view, there is no such thing as a throwaway, a nothing, a life too small to matter. Everybody is somebody. Ijames and his play implore you to do the same, not just with the four men we meet but with the grim roll call of black men and women killed by police in America whose names are projected onto the ramp and the bodies of the four characters.
The ensemble of actors are protean, shifting characters, moods and emotions in the blink of an eye. Fleming, Palmer, Gibbs and Nsubuga achieve the near impossible—they make you see the characters as individuals but also part of something larger, a population that is largely seen as dangerous and disposable.
What an ugly truth to face.
Necessary if we as a nation and as a community are to do something about systematic genocide. Kill Move Paradise doesn’t give solutions but urges us to take the first steps: Look. Take a deep breath before reacting. Breath is being.
Kill Move Paradise by James Ijames . Director: Danielle A. Drakes. Featuring Dylan J. Fleming, Jonathan Del Palmer, Christian R. Gibbs, Tendo Nsubuga. Scenic Design: Debra Kim Sivigny. Lighting Design: Harold F. Burgess II. Costume Design: Jessica Welch. Sound Design: Kevin J. Alexander. Choreographer. Dane Figueroa Edidi. Dramaturg: Khalid Y. Long. Intimacy and Fight Director: Jenny Male. Trauma Counselor: Jamal Hailey. Production Stage Manager: Raine Bode. Produced by Rep Stage . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.