Hell isn’t other people in James Ijames’ one-act play Kill Move Paradise (at Shotgun Players through August 4), about four young Black men trapped in a waiting room connected to the Great Beyond . Instead, hell is white people. The all-white stage design, by Celeste Martore, suggests a cross between a heavenly place and an asylum — a new way of defining Limbo. When the lights go out, the sound of a thunderstorm is paired with ominous imagery of lightning that’s projected onto all the white walls. When the lights come back up, Isa (Edward Ewell) arrives at this ambiguous hereafter via an underground system of water pipes. He’s ejected onto a sloped stage, off balance and struggling to gain his footing. There’s a barred “porthole” at the top of the set that Isa immediately tries to escape through. But he can’t reach it. He slips back down. Something or someone has sent him — against his will — to this sunken place.
Finding his feet, Isa studies the enclosed space around him. He struggles with and fails to open two other pipe covers. He also notices a manhole and a door but he can’t open those either. There’s a printer at the back of the stage that fires out occasional messages onto pages and pages of dangling white paper. When he starts to speak, Ijames has Isa address and acknowledge the audience. When two other young Black men join him later, they comment on the presence of the people out there who’ve paid to see them. That breaking of the fourth wall starts to feel more and more like a confrontation. Will one of them step off the stage to engage with us, one-on-one? This is how the playwright begins to implicate the audience in their current state of imprisonment.
Jackie Sibblies Drury took a similar approach at the end of her Pulitzer-winning play Fairview, but she went one step farther than Ijames does. Her main character asks the audience a question about race and then requests a participatory response. I kept waiting, and hoping, for Ijames to extend such an invitation to his audience, but the opportunity to do so passed by more than once. While Ijames’ method may have differed from Drury’s, Michel Martin’s recent NPR story on Fairview neatly summed up the way both plays intersect. Martin’s headline reads, “Fairview Is About Being Watched While Black.” That’s why the characters in Kill Move Paradise are aware of some inchoate, outside presence. Ijames just made the decision to engage with the idea of an audience, if not exactly head on as Drury does, then with a muscular cast of side-eye.
After Grif (Lenard Jackson) and Daz (Tre’Vonne Bell) make their own separate stormy entrances, all three men communicate how unsettled they feel about being trapped in this white space. To try to make sense of where they’ve landed, Daz jokes about being in an episode of The Twilight Zone. The playwright’s vision of this celestial way station does run parallel to that TV show. A mysterious paper airplane lands on stage. It’s probably a message from an unseen God. Isa, nominally the elder statesman of the group, reads its cryptic contents aloud. It doesn’t hold any easy answers for them. But once they accept that there’s no escape, each man in his own way tries to figure out what’s brought them together, even though their memories are patchy.
Grif remembers driving with his girlfriend and being pulled over. Daz recalls being out with his friends. Ordinary activities for a white man but not for black men, and people of color, who are scrutinized any time they’re out in public. When the fourteen-year-old Tiny (Dwayne Clay) shows up with an orange water gun in his hand, their memories all fall into place. Isa walks over to the printer to read a list of familiar names: Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, Anthony Lamar Smith. As he pronounces each name, Isa’s sorrow and rage increase. His reading turns into a lament. And the printer continues to add names to the never-ending list.
Kill Move Paradise converts the bleak, recurring headlines that announce the murders of young black men into an original and compelling visual metaphor. Ijames isn’t a reporter. He never reveals exactly why he brings these four characters, in particular, together. Are they there to recover from their traumatic deaths, to help each other along and out of this erasure? These young men do come to terms with each other and what’s happened to them, even forming a circle of healing and song. But their prayers, while bringing them a sense of peace and closure, isn’t enough to silence or shut that printer down.
Kill Move Paradise, through August 4, at Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. $7–$35; 510-841-6500 or shotgunplayers.org