The Helen Hayes award-winning Rep Stage theater company opened its third play of the season Feb. 20 with a regional premiere of contemporary playwright James Ijames’ “Kill Move Paradise.”
In step with the Rep Stage’s ongoing focus on social consciousness and the potential to create empathy through storytelling, “Kill Move Paradise” landed at the Studio Theatre in the Horowitz Visual Performing Arts Center at Howard Community College as artful activism seen through a #BlackLivesMatter lens.
Ijames, an assistant professor of theater at Villanova University and Philadelphia-based actor, director and playwright, has won numerous awards, including a 2019 Kesselring Prize from the National Arts Club for “Kill Move Paradise.”
The playwright has written that he intends to “create a space in which the humanity of the people on stage is undeniable.” With "Kill Move Paradise, richly presented here by director Danielle A. Drake, he has succeeded.
Every aspect of the production is designed to play to an avalanche of nonstop emotions — empathy, innocence, violence and joy — during 72 minutes of tightly choreographed, staged and enacted performance art. The ride begins with otherworldly sounds and the clicking of a fax machine scrolling a steady stream of paper (which lists names of slain black people) even before the lights come on.
A surreal metallic gray set – eight columns framing a sloping set under the canopy of three curved ceiling panels — depicts a timeless place in the cosmos, where stranded souls drop from the sky or climb out of a box.
Dylan J. Fleming as Isa is the first to be literally tossed by the universe into this undefined netherworld. We watch him react with rage, grief and finally acceptance when mysterious “instructions” drop from the sky.
Thus begins a journey that leads Drakes’ gifted cast — Fleming, Jonathan Del Palmer (Grif), Christian R. Gibbs (Daz) and Tendo Nsubuga (Tiny) — to discover immensely powerful moments in the spotlight together and alone; their dialogue insinuates references to real victims of racially charged violence such as Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.
These very different roles require tremendous physical and emotional range to perform, and the ensemble cast steps up with strength and conviction.
One actor appears to be hanging from a noose (without rope) during a transitional freeze, reminding the audience visually of Jim Crow and slavery.
Even light moments can reveal horror, like when the cast plays a seemingly innocent game of “aliens and cowboys” that leads to the realization that the character Tiny is a stand-in for Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy shot by police in Cleveland in 2014 while playing with a toy gun on a playground.
Monologues strike hard as each character breaks the fourth wall to confront the audience with questions like: “Why are you sitting here staring? Do you see me? Do I scare you?”
One would have to be inhuman not to be moved in some way, and shared humanity is the intended theme that threads through what the playwright assumes is a predominantly white audience.
Near the play’s end, the list of lives lost is projected onto the entire set as Palmer reads it aloud in a climactic moment. Among many other standout tech effects is lighting that perhaps suggests hell and the universe.
Because the show is so deeply emotional, Rep Stage’s Artistic Director Joseph Ritsch reached out to trauma counselor Jamal Hailey to be a production consultant. Hailey has been, and will continue to be. on board to provide emotional support to actors, staff and audience members.
Ritsch wrote in the program that Rep Stage produces work that “asks us to hold a mirror up to ourselves.”
Ijames has written that “Kill Move Paradise” is a “gesture towards building community … [and] a new kind of legacy.”
“Kill Move Paradise” continues through Sunday, March 8, in the Studio Theatre, Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center at Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Admission is $40 for general, $35 for seniors and $15 on Thursdays. For tickets and additional information, go to repstage.org.