‘Kill Move Paradise’ -- Powerful drama looks at racial inequities

Kai A. Ealy as Isa in “Kill Move Paradise.” 

James Ijames is a playwright to watch.

Of the many plays this season addressing the inequities and atrocities afflicting African Americans, his “Kill Move Paradise” is one of the most original and intensely theatrical.

The show opened in mid-February at TimeLine Theatre Company, so maybe you saw it before it shut down March 12 because of COVID-19. If you didn't, you have another chance.

TimeLine is streaming a previously recorded performance April 1-19. You can purchase tickets for a specific date and time, just like for a live show, and they're limited to 99 for each viewing, the number of seats in the theater. At curtain time, you'll receive a link and password available for one-time viewing. The only difference is that you can watch the tape anytime within the following week.

Two other plays by Ijames that were scheduled for April at Steppenwolf Theatre have been postponed. “The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington” has been moved to the 2021-22 Season, and Definition Theatre's “White,” which was part of Steppenwolf's LookOut Series, will be presented at a future date.

Here's my review of the press performance of “Kill Move Paradise”:

With “Kill Move Paradise,” Ijames has crafted a unique take on the plight of young black men victimized by senseless violence. Simultaneously harrowing and hilarious, the 90-minute piece springs vividly to life in the hands of director Wardell Julius Clark and his terrific four-man cast.

The characters, on the other hand, are all dead, though most of them don't initially realize it. One by one, they run, slide, or fall onto Ryan Emens' set, which looks a little like a skate boarders' half pipe done in striated black marble and is a kind of cosmic waiting room—or purgatory—where they prepare for their final destination. Pulsating lighting by Jason Lynch and heart-stopping effects by sound designer and composer Jeffrey Levin punctuate their actions and heighten their fears. They're also in punishing perpetual motion—including efforts to escape—choreographed by Breon Arzell with help from intimacy and violence designer Rachel Flesher.

First to arrive is Isa (Kai A Ealy), whose name we later learn means “Jesus” in Arabic. Dressed in a spiffy black suit and white scarf (costumes by Izumi Inaba) with nail marks in both hands, he tries to scale the wall so many times in so many ways that his efforts are as funny as they are futile. He tells us that he's been there before, and he also functions as a guide for the others, reading instructions that come via paper airplane or an old sprocket printer.

Isa addresses the audience directly, sometimes genially, sometimes confrontationally, at one point referring to us as “America” and suggesting that most of us are white (not true on press night). He makes us participants, or at least complicit, in the injustices described or enacted. And he reads a long list of African Americans who have been killed, usually at the hands of those in authority. The epidemic of police shootings is part of what inspired Ijames, along with the 2015 murder by a white supremacist of nine people during an evening Bible study at Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Isa soon is joined by Grif (Cage Sebastian Pierre), who is more on edge as they engage in antics combining camaraderie and one-upmanship. Decidedly manic Daz (Charles Andrew Gardiner), in a baseball cap and shirt that says “74,” dashes in through a door to an offstage room filled with artifacts of popular and political Black American culture. When asked for specifics, he rattles off a litany that includes everything from a portrait of Abraham Lincoln to at least 50 pairs of Jordans. Some of the items, such as “boxes of VHS tapes of old recorded re-runs of “A Different World,” “Living Single” and “Martin...,” are very humorous, and I think you have to be an aficionado to catch all the references.

Last on the scene is a boy named Tiny (Trent Davis), whose colorful toy gun could never be mistaken for the real thing yet seems to have gotten him shot. He doesn't remember this, but instead just recalls playing in the park and a new arrival shooting someone else. He's the only one who gets to re-enact the crime that killed him, as part of a devastating game of Cowboys and Aliens with the others, and Isa stresses that remembering the truth is the first step to transformation.

The presence of Tiny, and the presentation of the toll that violence takes on him, boys in general, and the larger community, is especially moving. It's followed by a choreographed ceremony of transformation, but I found that oddly less affecting and somehow inconclusive.

Up to the ending, “Kill Move Paradise” is a powerful play that also manages to be very entertaining. We're taken to task for our sins of omission (failing to fix a terrible situation) as well as commission, yet the experience, perhaps ironically, is enjoyable as well as instructive.

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