Days afterward, the images linger: Four black men of varying hues, ages, and demeanors arrayed on Matt Saunders' sloping white set, contorted in pain, bursting into song, trying desperately to escape their cosmic limbo. With Sisyphean fruitlessness, they scramble periodically up an unyielding mountain only to tumble back down.
The Philadelphia premiere of James Ijames's Kill Move Paradise, directed by Wilma Theater artistic director Blanka Zizka, benefits from strong performances, the Wilma's usual impeccable physical production, the timeliness of its subject, and moments of humor and poignancy. The play's abstract, poetic, and polemical qualities are consistent with the Wilma's predilection for non-naturalistic dramaturgy — a tradition in which its audiences are by now schooled.
Nevertheless, Kill Move Paradise, which debuted last year at the National Black Theatre in Harlem and which is part of this year's Philadelphia Fringe Festival, seems both uneven and static — an intriguing setup that isn't yet a fully satisfying play. Ijames — a Barrymore Award-winning actor and director, as well as a playwright — underscores his characters' humanity, but he provides little of their backstories and no sustained narrative conflict.
In program notes, Ijames says he was inspired by the Wilma's 2012 staging of Tony Kushner's Angels in America, which used a memorably bare white set. His 75-minute one-act drama also borrows from Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, and Sartre's No Exit — literary antecedents that Ijames weds to a passionate cri de coeur about the crisis of problematic and unjustified killings of black men and women by police and others.
Like Beckett's characters, jaded Isa (Lindsay Smiling), streetwise Daz (Brandon Pierce), former high school valedictorian Grif (Anthony Martinez-Briggs), and teenage Tiny (Avery Hannon) await the arrival of an unspecified deity or cosmic event. As in Pirandello, they break the fourth wall, implicating the audience. "They like to watch," Isa says, a witticism with an undercurrent of hostility.
As in Sartre, the four — who arrive one by one, ejected from an aperture — are trapped, at least temporarily, in a minimalist afterlife. Their fate has been sealed not by their own acts, but by misfortune and the deadly assumptions of the white majority. We learn little about how and why they died, and only the barest details of their lives. A fuller picture of what's been lost would add depth to the drama.
Ijames and Zizka skillfully use humor to interrogate and satirize the roles and stereotypes to which black men too often have been reduced — entertainers, sitcom characters, fear-inducing monsters. Daz, Isa, and Grif coalesce intermittently into a lively musical trio, offering interludes of song and dance. Tiny, with a green toy gun in hand, plays a pretend cowboy amid their hulking, cartoonish aliens.
Kill Move Paradise ends on a hopeful note, a promise of transcendence. But at its core are elegiac sadness and rage. A white fax machine intermittently spits out the names of slain black men and women. Isa reads the long list aloud, a seemingly ceaseless memorial. Some –Amadou Diallo, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown — we recognize; others we do not. Justin Ellington's soundscape and Thom Weaver's stark lighting imbue the proceedings with eeriness and majesty.