Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association, photo by Lara Goetsch.
Its playwright, James Ijames, describes Kill Move Paradise as “an expressionistic buzz saw through the contemporary myth that ‘all lives matter.’” Truthfully, while that is certainly accurate, it doesn’t even begin to do justice to the emotional power and existential majesty of the play that is now running at Timeline Theatre. This is a piece of theatre unlike any you have ever seen or will likely see again: an avant-garde exploration of American racism that is at once shocking, painful, hilarious, and deeply personal. It directly challenges its (mostly White) audience, through content and spectacle, to witness and do something about the deep-seated fear and hatred that propel our current epidemic of unarmed young Black men being killed by the police. In a time of rising White nationalism fueled by racist leaders, Kill Move Paradise demands that we step back, actually see what is going on, and ask why.
The play is set in a mysterious afterlife waiting room in which, one at a time, four young Black men find themselves, having been stripped of their lives violently, suddenly, and far too early. They go through the various Kubler-Ross stages of dealing with their own deaths, including especially Denial and Anger, as they begin trying to deal with what has happened in order to prepare for whatever comes next. Director Wardell Julius Clark, whose last production was Shattered Globe’s similarly themed Sheepdog, makes a stunning Timeline directorial debut here, shepherding these four actors through a piece that blends realistic and expressionistic acting styles with passionately choreographed movement, chanting, slapstick, dance, and about a million other methods of expression all rooted in the Black experience.
Kai A. Ealy, so good in last year’s Cardboard Piano, arrives first as Isa, a man who is not making his first appearance in the waiting room and who receives mysterious messages from an old dot matrix printer (and, oddly, paper airplanes) telling him what to do and whom to expect to join him. Like the others, he first tries to escape by attempting to climb up Ryan Emens’ huge set, shaped like a giant half pipe, sliding back down again and again before giving up and beginning to deal with his fate. He quickly discovers that his role is to act as a welcomer to those who are newly arrived and to help them to prepare for the next phase.
Soon joining him in this cosmic holding pen are Grif (Cage Sebastian Pierre) and Daz (Charles Andrew Gardner), each of whom brings his own kind of energy into the mix. Pierre brings a kind of stoic anger; Grif is the only character who doesn’t try to climb the half pipe, but he rails against the audience members who seem bent on merely watching what happens to these men. Gardner is far more manic in his performance: entering on a slow motion run from a previously hidden back room containing all sorts of memorabilia from Black culture (which the audience gets to see only briefly), he launches into a frenetic accounting of everything he saw in there while passing through, including dozens of pairs of Air Jordans, “Kunta Kinte’s toes,” cornrows, VHS tapes of shows like “A Different World” and “Martin,” and many examples of just “being cool.” Apparently this back room represents a glimpse into everything that Black people and Black culture have given to America, and it’s a lot.
Just as these characters begin to come to terms with their violent deaths, though, they are startled by the arrival of a fourth member of the party, a teenager named Tiny (Trent Davis) who, like Tamir Rice, was shot by police while playing with a toy gun in the park. (Tiny’s weapon is a brightly colored nerf rifle that no reasonable human being could possibly mistake for the real thing.) At first completely unaware that he has died, the boy begins to comprehend as his fellow souls slowly, carefully lead him to see what has happened. He too lashes out at the audience who sit watching his pain: “If all you wanted was a show, I could have given you that…You enjoying this?” For such a young actor, Davis brings an indelible energy of his own to this netherworld as his character transforms it, reminding us as if we needed it that none of this is a game.
Changes in the afterworld, including new arrivals, are portended by eccentric, chaotic lighting (by Jason Lynch, tasked here with helping to create a shocking post-death reality) along with original music and rumbling sound design that repeatedly shakes the space (both by Jeffrey Levin). Izumi Inaba’s costume design helps to differentiate the prior experiences of these people, as well as to show the similarity of their fates later on. But make no mistake: this is a director’s show, and Clark (along with movement choreographer Breon Arzell) elevates Ijames’ already powerful script into an intense visual and vocal explosion that reminds us at every moment that what we are watching is nothing short of an attempt at cultural erasure. Its climactic moment involves the recitation of the seemingly hundreds of names of Black people who are victims to the hatred and fear of White people. It is undeniable and painful to hear.
Kill Move Paradise is an overwhelming spectacle that, while repeatedly and bluntly stating that the audience is only there to watch, hopes and expects us to do far more than that. It is of course doubtful that a play could change the world—and anyway, given the self-selected audience, Ijames is probably preaching to the choir—but if one could ever truly raise the consciousness and awareness of the daily struggles of Black Americans in the minds of White people still unaware of the depths of privilege they are steeped in, this is probably it. It is a sharp, multi-bladed knife slicing away any possibility of indifference, and—especially at this time in history—a loud and necessary voice for understanding and change.
Kill Move Paradise is now playing at Timeline Theatre, 615 W. Wellington, Chicago, IL, until Apr 5. The show runs approximately 90 minutes; there is no intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.