A young, black man appears suddenly at the far end of a prism-like corridor, gasping for air. He regains his composure and explores his surroundings. The entire corridor is mirrored except for two long rectangular openings on his left and right. Through these openings he spots the audience, which sits on either side, facing each other, staring into the corridor. He seems simultaneously pleased and uncomfortable to see us there.
A paper airplane flies into his hand. He reads the paper and begins to shake with dread. His convulsing body is reflected infinitely throughout the corridor. Soon, the man will be joined by three others who pass through the same motions. The men, we learn, are victims of police violence against black men. The corridor is a holding space for their souls, as they make sense of their deaths and contextualize their pain in our national and personal histories.
Kill Move Paradise, written by James Ijames and directed by Saheem Ali, succeeds in building community in the wake of ongoing national pain (I resist the impulse to write ‘tragedy’ because ‘tragedy’ implies a fatalistic, uncontrollable scenario). Ijames’ writing is an ambitious project and aims to both examine and to heal. It is simultaneously all of the following: an elegy for the slain; an incisive and uncomfortable commentary that uses every theatrical conventions like song and dance to disturb and excite; a contemporary ritual to cleanse our past in hope for future generations. The National Black Theater, which helmed the production, hosts talkbacks at the end of every show, and I can’t remember the last time when everyone in an audience found something truly meaningful in a production.
Rather than go down a check list of the play’s triumphs, I want to focus my attention on how ONE production choice encompasses its radical endeavor: Maruti Evans’ mirrored set. An infinite hallway that both reflects and distorts. A stand-alone piece (a la carnival funhouse) but also integral to the piece. Here are 5 ways that Evans’ set mirrors the possibilities of Kill Move Paradise:
- It’s minimal.
Even though it’s striking the set never overwhelms you, which allows our focus to shift towards the plays other outstanding features – an energetic, protean cast, a resounding script, etc. But the set also set outs to surprise you. Shifting floorboards allow for the men’s sudden entrances. At one end, a transparent lift allows for the tension-filled entrance of the youngest of the victims.
- It’s infinite.
Kill Move Paradise’s ambition is to speak for black victims of police institutional violence dating back to (judging from the repeated Christian references) Jesus. The history of police violence is not history but rather an ongoing crisis. And as each new victim gets written into the narrative, added to the long scroll of men’s names read aloud during the play (a list which grew bigger during the play’s rehearsals) the past and the future mediate the present. Each new shooting invokes those that came before it and those that have yet to come.
The set’s mirrored surface creates an infinitude of reflected men. A repeated pattern of death and of injustice is set out before us. And yet, some may feel hope in seeing the multitude of men together, striving to understand the circumstances that led them to this place, resolving to mourn and, in time, to see their community united.
- It distorts the image.
A certain parts of the hallway, the mirrors are distorted, creating a slightly grotesque atmosphere to the men’s reflections. The distortions emphasize the distortion of the narratives we receive in the media and in popular culture about the killings. Information often gets filtered through the biases of political leanings, of social and racial structures, of a news outlet’s desire to get more clicks. And even if we were to rid our media of these biases, how could we see these dead men differently? How could we account for their humanity, their souls? To see them as more than just another name on a list of the dead, another cause to champion? How can we find the truth of who they were? How can we find the truth to never let it happen again?
- It slants upwards.
Besides the mirrors, the sole defining structural feature of the hallway is a ramp extending upwards to what appears to the characters as an exit from their condition. The men try to escape, but when they do, a divine stroke of electricity prevents them from getting up. Their desperation grows, and one of the men repeats the cycle of running up the hill, getting electrified, and rolling back down helplessly for an uncomfortably long stretch of time. What must they do to escape?
The uphill struggle of the characters to understand and to reconcile their fates with those that are to come, stays in view at all times.
- It’s voyeuristic.
The actors confront the audience at several points throughout the play. Why are we watching them, all peepshow-like? What are we there to accomplish? As they begin to understand their own deaths, why do we continue to watch? Are we entertained?
The audience’s role in the theater and our wakened consciousness is clearly a concern to Ijames. It’s a question that has dogged avant-garde playwrights for over a century. How do we create critical, thinking audiences instead of passivized, complacent consumers? How can we best ensure that this art will change the way they perceive the world? Evans’ set places us a voyeurs of the afterlife, seeking the pleasures that a night at the theater might imply for us. There’s also something pleasurable about the nature of viewing the play itself. There may be pleasure in the comfort of seeing the continued existence of these men’s souls (and our souls, for that matter) in an afterlife. The play may provide a sense of closure, much like the idea of seeing our loved ones eternally in heaven.
And yet, Kill Move Paradise smartly withholds that pleasure from us by confronting us with our own gaze. Not only do the actors acknowledge (and therefore disempower it), but we also see the other half of the audience watching across the stage, looking through the facing view.
Furthermore, none of our view are ever complete. The view of an actor’s head is cut off if he’s standing atop the ramp. And I sometimes had to rely on some of the mirrors in order to see the action happening on the floor. This again, distorts our view, showing us that no one point of view is all-encompassing or all-knowing. Every person’s perspective of the events on stage is different merely because of where they are sitting and what they can see.
Kill Move Paradise played at the National Black Theater in Spring 2017.