Kill Move Paradise

Usually, I review books in this space. Today, we’re doing something a little different. Because when I was sitting in the audience at the end of Kill Move Paradise, I thought, I have to write about this in the blog. So, today, it’s a play.

Hattiloo Theatre

My husband and I have been attending Memphis’s Hattiloo Theatre since the days of its old store-front location in the Edge. That’s been at least ten years. During that time, we’ve seen some amazing plays—Hattiloo is a standout among Black Repertory Theatre and a national resource. My favorites have been those of August Wilson, particularly Two Trains Running. Ekundayo Bandele‘s Tumbling Down also stands out. Ek, who is the founder and CEO of Hattiloo and a friend, wrote the play about taking down the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue. (n.b. I believe Ek will create a Memphis opus to stand alongside Wilson’s Pittsburg opus.) Kill Move Paradise now joins that list of my favorites.

Why Kill Move Paradise?

“I didn’t move. I hardly shifted on the stool. I didn’t answer my phone.” So writes Bandele describing the moment he first read playwright James IJames’ script. James IJames is a North Carolina native based in Philadelphia who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2022 for his play Fat Ham. Kill Move Paradise is not a new play. IJames wrote it in 2015 after the Mother Emmanuel killings, before the summer awakening of George Floyd. The trauma of Black men killed by police that unfolds before the audience proceeded apace many, many years before white America was startled into acknowledging it.

The Audience’s Role

The play happens in a purgatory-type setting where four Black men—one by one—inexplicably find themselves. Grif, Daz, ISA, and Tiny are strangers to one another, connected only by their fate as Black men. One of the confusing aspects of their new existence is us, the audience. Sitting, watching. We are America, because we are in fact America, and also because that’s what the young men tell us. “They’re America.” The actors look us in the eye as we sit and watch as the law kills Black men and kills again and again. I say men, but the youngest is a boy. Killed for playing space aliens in the park.

If this sounds difficult, it is. It’s also beautiful lyrical writing, wildly funny (particularly in Timothy Woods’ performance of Daz), easy camaraderie, a musical number, intense anger, and back to confusion. Of all the genius writing and amazing acting, I will remember when Grif unfurls a list. He reads the names on the list. All slain African Americans. That I recognized some names only emphasized how many I did not.

Kill Move Paradise in your Town

We saw this play at the end of its Hattiloo run. So I can’t tell you to go make a reservation (though the Hattiloo season continues, so check it out.) If the play comes to a theatre near you, consider going. I’m obviously not a Black man in America. As hard as the truth of the play was on me, it has to be a hundred times harder on those who regularly face this danger and trauma. Thus, I’m not in a position to urge everyone to go. But I do think the play immerses the audience in this world gracefully. As Bandele writes in his introductory Message: “I typically don’t select plays that can redouble Black trauma…But this show moved me in such a way that I was neither scared nor offended by our sometimes-brutal reality.”

On the other hand, if you’re white, go directly to this play. Again, Bandele speaking to any potential audience member: “I ask you to try not to squirm in your seat, don’t look away from the story; instead, dedicate your attention to this play.”

Black repertory theatre, Black theatre, Hattiloo Theatre, James IJames, Kill Move Paradise, What to do in Memphis

Comments (4)

  • Thank you for sharing about this theatrical experience, Ellen. I’m unlikely to ever have the opportunity to see it in person, given my location, so I appreciate the opportunity to know about this play.

  • Thank you for seeing this play. I don’t mean “seeing” as – sitting in the audience and watching it. Rather, I mean “seeing” as identifying with it in your own way, and thinking enough of the content to sit with it for a while.

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