Encore Michigan

Black afterlives matter in ‘Kill Move Paradise’

Review May 25, 2019 Patrice Nolan

ANN ARBOR, Mich.— Theatre Nova presents the Michigan premiere of James Ijames’ remarkably crafted, surreal play, Kill Move Paradise. In this compact drama (60+ minutes) we watch as, one after another, four people are violently sucked from the planet and spit into eternity’s waiting room.

They have little in common beyond the fact that they are all young, male and black. Isa (Dez Walker) is something of a philosopher and spiritual healer. Jonathan Jones (Grif) seems like a regular guy who just wants to mind his own business. Daz (Dan Johnson) is pissed at the universe, seemingly drug addled, but at times charmingly coherent. Tiny, the last to join the group, is a bright kid who likes to play Cowboys and Aliens in the park. We quickly learn that these four have joined a club no one wants to belong to: each has been slain under senseless, arbitrary, and tragic circumstances.

This mesmerizing Theatre Nova production, directed by Diane Hill, elevates the characters’ sense of desperation and our own connection to their pain and sorrow by staging the play in the round. Patrons familiar with the intimate performance space will wonder how this was even possible (they added two rows of seats against what is normally the upstage backdrop) and why they attempted it. As Director Diane Hill explained, the script calls for a space that physically traps the young men, who try and fail to escape. It had to feel real.

The decision to stage the play in the round came out of a collaborative, physical exploration of the material by Hill, the actors, and set designer Forrest Hejkal. Intentionally or otherwise, the claustrophobic staging also leans into to Sartre’s No Exit; we are literally placed in a rectangle with no visible means of escape. The actors don’t “enter;” they are thrown onto the stage. The staging also underscores an eerie element of the play — the characters can watch us watching them, but they cannot hear us. We, the audience, are the witnesses and judges. We are America waiting to see what they will do. They may resent us, but they feel compelled to appease us and, perhaps, to challenge us.

The play is essentially about the adult characters’ struggle to understand where they are, how they got there, and what it all means. Isa, the first on the scene, is provided a cryptic set of instructions to lead the others to transformation. He is a Christ figure who believes their sacrificial death will make it possible for others to live. Grif suggests they are all martyrs to a righteous cause that will now gain traction. Daz just thinks it’s all effed up, and they are they simply three more victims on a painfully long and growing list.

The adult men seek connection and transformation, and it comes as they set aside their own pain to help Tiny come to terms with the situation. Without giving too much away, the characters are at times playful uncles, a doo wop group, a sinister three-headed alien and, scariest of all, characters in a TV sit-com about a happy African American family, replete with eye rolls and a cloying laugh track.

In addition to directing, Diane Hill is the sound designer — audio is a critical element in this play. Hejkal’s set, which extends beyond the audience, is lit by Daniel C. Walker. Original music and choreography are by Brian E. Buckner. Haley Cook provides costume design and Alona Shewach handles props as well as stage manager duties.

This play is unsettling, to be sure, and has it’s grim moments. But it is also funny at times, thoroughly engaging and beautifully executed. The acting is top drawer. Kill Move Paradise throws a light on the darkest corners of the American experience. It doesn’t presume to give us answers. But, lest we despair, it concludes on a hopeful note, a reflection of John 14:2 and an ultimate transformation.  

In an NPR interview regarding the current Broadway production of To Kill a Mockingbird, Jeff Daniels remarked that the difference between art and entertainment is that art poses questions that each of us must answer for ourselves. This is art.

Click here for show days, times and details.

Read more about Kill Move Paradise 05/23–06/16

Read more about Theatre Nova

Week of 9/16/2019

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