Four men, by turn, tumble onto the scene, thrust, thrown, exploded onto the slick black-and-white skateboard ramp of a set. All is black and white—costumes and set—until the fourth arrives. It’s a tween-aged boy named Tiny and he’s dressed in tan jeans and knit cap, red shoes and a blue denim vest. Why is he there?
None of them know where they are—or why. It’s a mirage world with no fourth wall. Isa (Kai A. Ealy) arrives first, stands up, looks around and sees us all watching. We’re sitting in Timeline Theatre, watching James Ijames’ play, Kill Move Paradise, directed by Wardell Julius Clark. It’s a play that addresses one of today’s most grievous inhumanities in a moving and imaginative way. .
Isa makes eye contact with a few of us as he scans the room (a thrust stage with seating on two sides).
“Do I scare you?” Isa asks. “I remember… the age I learned I was scary. 8.”
A paper airplane swoops in. Isa opens it, glances at it and tosses it aside. A dot-matrix printer at the rear of the stage occasionally chunks out text.
Grif (Cage Sebastian Pierre) pops up, sits on the edge of the stage, panting. Isa helps him up and the two look around. “Why are they here?” Grif asks. “They paid. They like to watch,” Isa says, with a shrug.
Daz arrives (Charles Andrew Gardner, wearing #74 duds), coming out of a sidestage door and leaping into a frenetic dance. After he recovers, they ask him what’s back there, behind the door. This is a brief part of his reply.
“Man…there’s a bathtub, two big screen TVs, a portrait of Abraham Lincoln randomly, Bowling balls, ballerina slippers, LPs, Joe Louis’ boxing shorts, at least fifty pairs of Jordans, A moose head, A stuffed bear, All these newspapers and magazines and books, Furniture, Mannequins wearing hoop skirts, A human cadaver, tricycles, bicycles…. Tupac and Biggie in there… they told me to tell y’all they ain’t comin back…. Being cool is in there, cornrows, sunglasses, two-way pagers, Jamaican fucking castor oil…. John Coltrane’s Horn is in there .…”
They start trying to remember what they remember last. My daughter in a crib. The 28 bus. Breakfast. And: Is this a support group, a book club, heaven, purgatory, Hades, limbo?
“Wait, are we dead?” “Wait. We dead.”
These conversations are interspersed with intense physical activity. At one time or another, each desperately runs up the slope, collapses and slides down, tries again and again.
Seeking answers, Isa picks up the paper and reads. It’s a visitors guide, a welcome letter to the waystation where they’ll stay on the way to their final destination.
They decide they need to read what’s coming off the printer. Isa rips off the paper and begins: “Amadou Diallo, Malcolm Ferguson….” Dozens of names, many of them familiar. Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner. Laquan McDonald. Grif and Daz respond with emotion as Isa reads. It ends: “And, and, and. And, and, and, and.”
An earthquake. Tiny slides in. (He’s played by Trent Davis and by Donovan Session at some performances.) Tiny doesn’t know who they are or where he is, but by the end of the play, he remembers.
Kill Move Paradise is richly imaginative and visually stunning. It is not a realistic bang-bang view of the atrocities that black men endure but it is perhaps more damning in its creativity. Clark’s direction draws powerful performances from all four of the actors, each with his own story and personality as created by Ijames (his name is pronounced I’mes). The production is brilliantly enhanced by movement and choreography by Breon Arzell.
Ryan Emens’ expressionistic scenic design and Jason Lynch’s lighting make a skateboard park into an elegantly slick purgatory. Stan Hicks’ technical direction supported by master electrician Michael Gobel, audio engineer Michael R. Chase and a 25-member technical crew make the explosive magic work throughout the 90-minute production. Jeffrey Levin is sound designer and composer. Costumes are by Izumi Inaba.
James Ijames is a Philadelphia-based playwright whose work has won many awards. One of his plays—The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington—will be produced this season by Steppenwolf Theatre.
Kill Move Paradise continues at Timeline Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave., through April 5. Tickets are $42-$57 for performances Wednesday-Sunday.