Know Theatre’s Kill Move Paradise opens abruptly. The first character to greet the stage is Isa (Darnell Pierre Benjamin), who makes his entrance with a thunderclap and instant deep emotion. Performed in thrust, Kill Move Paradise ensures the audience is there to watch every moment, hear every breath and feel every experience as it develops onstage.
Isa demonstrates this intention immediately, pointing people out and asking direct and pointed questions. “Come to see me?” he demands of a man in the front row. “What for?”
But the answer doesn’t matter; Isa isn’t looking for answers from the audience. Nor is Grif (Landon Horton), who comes barreling out of the back of the house onto the stage not long after. The two talk for some time, without the harsh reality of their situation being evident.
Neither Isa nor Grif can remember the exact details surrounding the events that brought them to what they see as such a strange place. Soon they are joined by Daz (Elliot Young), and eventually the three realize they are dead — Daz takes the news much harder than his companions. But no character is as heartbreaking as Tiny, a preteen boy played by adult actor Crystian Wiltshire, who enthusiastically joins the others, equipped with a beaming smile and a toy gun.
Each of these four characters is trapped in limbo — a confusing place filled with water, thunderous roars and a handy instruction booklet for their time there. Their job, the booklet states, is to remember what happened to them. Over the course of the next 70 minutes, they set out to do just that. This is the answer they are looking for.
But they aren’t alone in this limbo; they are part of a seemingly endless and constantly growing list of names that Isa pulls out of his pocket. The list contains each of their names along with black men and women who came before them, whose lives were also cut short simply because of their blackness. Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland and Sam DuBose are among some of the names Isa somberly reads aloud.
Part of what makes the experience of Kill Move Paradise, directed by Piper N. Davis, so intensely real and uncomfortable is not just the facts that spill over to meet the fiction. The intensity also stems from the level of interaction between the actors and individual audience members. When they speak, they speak to you — locking eyes and crying out to a crowd that gives only silence in return.
But in Kill Move Paradise, discomfort is a good thing. Playwright James Ijames uses this ethereal setting to create a sense of dread. As each new character pops out, or new names are added to the list in Isa’s pocket, we feel an apprehension that comes with never knowing if there is an end in sight. Ijames uses the audience’s discomfort to prove a point.
By bringing the audience into the experience, Ijames highlights the passive nature of American culture. The willingness to be a spectator who witnesses and feels but never acts. Or, perhaps more poignantly, the spectator who instead insists that “all lives matter.”
But these characters are aware of their spectators. And they use that awareness to grapple with their experiences. They pose rhetorical questions and shout cryptic poems from their own individual corners of the stage, desperately trying to make sense of it all.
The actors skillfully navigate the tense landscape of the play, while creating moments of levity. But even in the moments of comic relief, the tension hangs in the air like an ominous cloud.
Four young lives were ripped away too soon, and Kill Move Paradise demands to know why. And more importantly, it demands that we reckon with the implications of those deaths: scores of books left unwritten by lives lost too soon; television shows that highlight the black experience left untold. Talent truncated by senseless deaths. In the end, Tiny receives assurance from Daz that his death was, in fact, not OK, and Tiny doesn’t need to accept it as such. None of them do.
Kill Move Paradise is onstage at the Know Theatre (1120 Jackson St., Over-the-Rhine) through March 24. Tickets/more info: knowtheatre.com.