Living While Black: Theatre Nova’s production of James Ijames' “Kill Move Paradise” is powerful
The list is long, much too long.
Sometimes it seems like every few days a black American is gunned down by a police officer. They are often unarmed, unthreatening and involved in confrontations with the police that should have never escalated into deadly violence.
Sometimes the police officers involved go to jail, many times they don’t.
In a burst of blinding light, gunshots, and the cacophony of urban noise, a man is thrust on to a stage, a bare closed room from which he can not escape. It’s a sort of limbo, where he waits for a judgment about what it was that brought him here. He is a fatal victim of police violence. He is in turn followed by three other black men into this limbo. As one victim says, it reminds him of an episode of the old Twilight Zone TV show.
And they are in a show because the audience is visible to the four men. They comment on the audience and come to believe that the audience will decide their fate. In this case, and Ijames must have thought in most cases, the audience at Theatre Nova’s opening night was primarily white.
This message is for them.
Ijames uses a variety of techniques to tell the story and make the argument that this official violence feeds other violence and must stop. It’s a theatrical sermon, but one that is quite powerful at times, grimly funny, verbally adept with the rhythms of jazz, hip-hop, and Sunday gospel music.
Director Diane Hill and her four talented actors bring all this to vivid life with precise timing and an immersion into the distinctly different personalities of the four victims.
Dez Walker plays Isa, the solid rock of the four. He is the first thrust into this strange place. He is bewildered but wise. He understands what’s going on because he has the “rules” and the ever-growing list. Walker brings that calm but angry demeanor as both the starting point for the audience and pivot for the others who follow.
Jonathan Jones plays the nerdy Grif. He’s a big guy but affable, funny, into pop culture. Grif was killed after failing to signal while driving black with his girlfriend. He begins to see himself as some kind of chosen martyr. He is the comforting one, the hugger, the guy least likely to be a threat.
Dan Johnson plays Daz, a fierce, wigged out, desperate young man. He talks a mile a minute, his eyes bulge, he can’t stop moving. He’s the sort of young black man who suburban whites find threatening, perhaps he’s high on something or has mental problems. But, he, too, was killed for no reason. Johnson brings energy and rapid-fire reading of lines that zoom in and out like a Robin Williams monologue or a Richard Pryor breakdown.
Miles Bond plays Tony, the last one in. He’s a boy, shot on a playground while playing cowboys and aliens with a plastic gun. This is based on the shooting of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy in Cleveland killed by a policeman. Bond brings sensitivity to the part of a promising young boy with high IQ who found that even being in a public park, playing a role-playing game can be the wrong place at the wrong time. Bond also brings humor to this grim situation as he leads his fellows through a game of make-believe.
Ijames’ play is about make-believe. He doesn’t tell a linear story. He makes use of various kinds of storytelling. There are doo-wop choruses, gospel hymns, a situation comedy with a laugh track to make the white audience feel more comfortable, and outright pleas. Hill creates an interesting soundscape of song and urban noise that fill in for visual scenery.
The verbal and sometimes musical byplay is rapid-fire and expertly delivered. It is this constant energy that gives the play its appeal and its effectiveness.
The conflict between police and black communities has been going on for many years. It is a product of racial animosity and distrust. Street crime is always a problem in economically distressed black and white communities. But the majority of police officers are white and many black police officers are suspended between two rival cultures. It’s hard to read motive into why a tragically large amount of police officers use excessive force. Racism, a culture of violence, honest fear, and much more might be involved.
Ijames does not address all these issues, but he makes a strong case that it is long past time to take stronger actions to deal with a never-ending crisis. The police have a job to do, but they can’t do it if they victimize the community they are supposed to be protecting.
Ijames leaves it to the audience to understand just how serious this is.
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
"Kill Move Paradise" continues at Theatre Nova, 410 W. Huron in downtown Ann Arbor, at 8 pm on Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 pm on Sundays through June 16. For tickets, visit TheatreNOVA.org, call 734-635-8450 Tuesdays through Fridays from noon to 3 pm or buy at the box office one hour before the show.