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Kill Move Paradise, the latest from Philadelphia favorite son James Ijames, makes its local premiere at the Wilma Theater after earning plaudits in New York and elsewhere. This haunting, elliptical play represents a breakthrough for the multitalented artist, and for art that considers the value of black lives in America at the present moment.
On Matt Saunders’s steeply raked, all-white set, lit bracingly by Thom Weaver, three black men untimely ripped from the world consider their own fates – and the fate of a nation where senseless, racially motivated killings happen with such frequency they become almost anodyne. In a program note, Ijames describes the setting as a bardo, a liminal space in Tibetan Buddhism that exists somewhere between death and reincarnation, a stomping ground for souls not yet finished with their work.
This feels more appropriate than Purgatory, which applies some kind of misconduct in life that postpones the spectral reward. Isa (Lindsay Smiling), Grif (Anthony Martinez-Briggs), and Daz (Brandon J. Pierce) are not here because of what they’ve done; they’re here because of what was done to them. That distinction swarms the corners of the tightly paced 70-minute story, even as Ijames withholds specific details about their lives and fates, dispensing only as much as is needed to understand.
A fax machine intermittently spits out new names of men, women, and children who meet similar ends. Some are familiar (Amadou Diallo, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland). Some may not be. Some are tragically recent: Botham Jean, shot in his own home by an off-duty police officer, was added after the play began performances last week.
The machine eventually summons a fourth body to the space: Tiny (Avery Hannon), barely a teenager, his hands wrapped around a bright green toy gun. The prop looks exactly like an iPhone emoji, harmless and banal. But because of the ways in which society codes people of color – especially young black men – as dangerous and other, it signals Tiny’s awful fortune.
Again, Ijames stops short of making a direct parallel, but Tiny’s trajectory echoes that of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old shot by a cop in a Cleveland park. He, too, held a toy gun.
Ijames draws from Beckett, Sartre, and the classics of ancient Greek theater to construct the world of Kill Move Paradise. The quartet understands that a way out exists – a cryptic note explaining the rules all but falls from the sky – but it’s more difficult than meets the eye.
They bristle at each other, become exasperated, throw up their hands in frustration, and even come to blows. But they also recognize, and verbalize, the brotherhood between them, adding a dash of hope to the general bleakness of their situation.
The four are always aware of being watched, making reference to the audience sitting mere feet away. The night I saw the production, the very receptive audience was mostly white. That fact heightens the feeling of observations made from a comfortable distance, of well-meaning liberals tut-tutting at tragic events for an hour or so before resuming their becalmed lives. Ijames could actually go farther in his indictment of this kind of passive spectatorship; it would risk alienating the audience, but given the circumstances, it’s a risk worth taking.
Blanka Zizka’s expert direction balances the rage and joy felt by Ijames’s characters. She handles the tonal shifts – not just between comedy and tragedy, but also subtlety and overstatement – with ease. The three adult performers, among the best currently working in Philadelphia, are as good here as I’ve ever seen them, although Pierce especially distinguishes himself as Daz’s gleefully insouciant veneer abruptly cracks. And Hannon gives a detailed, moving performance free of the artifice sometimes seen among child actors.
Near the middle of the play, Isa and Grif argue about whether they are martyrs or sacrifices. Martyrs, says Grif, are killed for who they are. Isa counters that sacrifices die for a greater purpose – “we save the rest, so they can live.” Ijames, of course, stops short of answering this debate too. That’s as it should be; the power of Kill Move Paradise lies in its sad ambiguity.
What, When, Where
Kill Move Paradise. By James Ijames, Blanka Zizka directed. Through September 23, 2018, at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or fringearts.com.
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