Review: 'Kill Move Paradise' Pulses with Life at Shotgun Players

Dwayne Clay, Eddie Ewell, Lenard Jackson, and Tre'Vonne Bell in 'Kill Move Paradise,' by James Ijames, at Shotgun Players' Ashby Stage. (Robbie Sweeny)

On a sterile white stage, gently curved like the interior of a celestial guitar, a man reads from a seemingly endless list.

“Amadou Diallo. Malcolm Ferguson. Patrick Dorismond.”

If you recognize these names, then you already know that the list—spooling comically from an impact printer—is pages and pages long. Among the names I hear Oscar Grant. Andy Lopez. Nia Wilson. A projection of a trickling river becomes a flood, sweeping uncontrolled across the back of the stage. Two other actors struggle against the current, which threatens to sweep them away.

Eddie Ewell, Lenard Jackson, and Tre'Vonne Bell read from the list in 'Kill Move Paradise,' by James Ijames, at Shotgun Players' Ashby Stage. (Robbie Sweeny)

In James Ijames’ Kill Move Paradise, Isa (Eddie Ewell), Grif (Lenard Jackson), and Daz (Tre’Vonne Bell) find themselves in purgatory, where they must work together toward the next plane in their ascension to the afterlife. As black men who have been murdered, their instructions for transformation include simply to “remember.” Without the comfort of oblivion, they must take comfort in each other, and demonstrate to themselves and the audience why they matter.

This rare collaboration between Shotgun Players and Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, directed by Darryl V. Jones, imbues Ijames’ eternity-focused script with earthly expressiveness. Isa, resigned, has been here before, and recognizes not only the room but the situation. In actor Eddie Ewell’s hands he is kindly, assured; the perfect, cardigan-clad intermediary to coach his fellow residents of limbo to the next level. Jackson’s Grif is sweetly dorky in a bow tie and a knack for the double take, and Bell’s Daz an explosion of street patter and crackling, live-wire energy.

Eddie Ewell dances on Celeste Martore's singular set in 'Kill Move Paradise,' at Shotgun Players' Ashby Stage. (Robbie Sweeny)

The blank white walls of Celeste Martore’s set curve extravagantly into each other, flanked by tubular portals or ducts through which the three men have been unceremoniously shoved by unknown forces. When the men try to scale them, they quickly slide back down to the ground in Sisyphean frustration. In function, the set acts both as a blank canvas for Theodore J.H. Hulsker’s video projections of cracked earth, flood waters, lightning, and heavenly bodies, and as a perfect metaphor for our protagonists' existential predicament—of black men trapped and held by implacable, oppressive whiteness. As they try to work out amongst themselves whether their untimely deaths make them martyrs or sacrifices, the pristine walls give them no clues, only barriers.

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Just when it seems as if the setup couldn't get more harrowing, a fourth character appears. Tiny (Dwayne Clay) is a playful teenager clad in red and blue sportswear and carrying an obviously fake, bright orange popgun. His arrival stuns and enrages his predecessors. A child. Who plays make-believe games of cowboys and aliens in the park. Who boasts of his high IQ one moment and sulks about being teased for it the next.

“He’s too young,” Daz protests, vacillating between wanting Tiny to know the truth of why he’s come, yet unable to break it to him. But remembering is in the instruction manual, and they can only move to the next level if they move together, and so they set about the task of bringing Tiny up to speed on his death.

In Ijames’ inspired vision of the afterlife, there’s no escaping the truth, not even for the audience. Our protective fourth wall is breached right at the beginning of the play, and frequently we become the subject of speculation. Are we a wall of observers, monitoring for quality control? A representative slice of Americans? A room of detached voyeurs? How can we just sit there and watch the pain and confusion of others unfurl before us like a spectator sport? Indeed, how can anyone, Ijames appears to demand.

Eddie Ewell, Tre'Vonne Bell, and Lenard Jackson intimidate Dwayne Clay in 'Kill Move Paradise,' at Shotgun Players' Ashby Stage. (Robbie Sweeny)

Before our eyes, the characters undergo harrowing transformations in their pursuit of revelation. At one point the three men join together to become an otherworldly three-headed Cerberus, sinuous and threatening. At another, they ham their way through a sit-com, complete with canned laughter and applause. Their reality contracts and expands with infinite possibility, while the audience remains static—not invited to participate in the piece so much as to bear witness.

Dwayne Clay as Tiny confronts the audience in 'Kill Move Paradise' at Shotgun Players' Ashby Stage. (Robbie Sweeny)

With Kill Move Paradise, Ijames gives voice to those silenced for no other reason than the color of their skin and irrational fear. A dazzling pastiche of shimmering surrealism, poetic soliloquies, an undercurrent of grief, and a reverence for the pulsating life force that propels us forward, Kill Move Paradise doesn’t so much unfold onstage but burst onto it, like an extraterrestrial explosion. A reflection of both our worst and best traits as a society. It may embody one of our grimmest statistics, but within it lies a kernel of hope.

“I am the last they shall eliminate,” Tiny pronounces near the end, as the four prepare to attain eternity. He makes it sound like a promise—and a prayer.

'Kill Move' Paradise' runs through Aug. 4 at Ashby Stage in Berkeley. Details here.

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