“Is this a show that we can even review?” asked Gwen.
Eleanor considered the question, more for wording than for content. “‘Review’ is a strong word,” she finally spoke. “We usually just discuss. You’re not scheduled to formally review this one, right?”
“No, they sent a different critic,” Gwen replied. “I only mean…”
Gwen weighed the necessity of commenting on the play. Kill Move Paradise, a dramatic expression of synchronized fury from writer James Ijames, now playing its Chicago premiere under the direction of Wardell Julius Clark, was unapologetically black. The play made no attempt to decode, disassemble, or render toothless its resonance within the community it portrayed. Marked by hyperspecific references and language, it was impossible –– and unneeded –– for Gwen to unpack the various layers underneath the surface. There were better critics to handle that archeology.
With that established, was it worth it for Gwen to share her personal experience watching the production? Throughout the performance, she had returned to Yolanda Bonnell’s recent Vice article, about disinviting white critics from reviewing her play bug. “I think there’s a responsibility,” Bonnell wrote, “in acknowledging that you may not understand certain cultural aspects of how the storyteller is choosing to tell that story.” Did Ijames, Clark, and the very game cast of Kill Move Paradise need Gwen’s observation?
“Gwen?” asked Dania, as her friend stared into space. “Are you good?”
“Sorry,” Gwen said, stepping back into her head. “Got lost there for a minute.”
“I enjoyed it,” Dania began, but quickly took another look at the phrase. “Well, enjoy is probably the wrong word,” she backtracked. “I appreciated it? No, that feels wrong as well…”
“If you enjoyed it, you probably missed the message,” said Eleanor. “The whole production feels as though it’s setting out to actively prevent the audience from sitting back and passively enjoying the show from afar. The lack of a fourth wall, all that intense direct address…”
“Yeah, I’ve never been shut up so quickly by eye contact from actors,” Dania recalled. “I got out of the way, as best as I could.”
“You’re in the theatre,” Eleanor said. “You’re watching the characters express their trauma. I don’t know if there’s any way for us not to be in the way.”
“The show advertises with that quote. ‘You have to be a witness.'” Dania looked at the button, bearing the quote, which she had picked up from the production’s in-depth lobby display, designed by Dina Spoerl. “Clearly, they do want someone watching. Right? But which someone?”
That made Gwen’s ears perk up a bit. You have to be a witness. She recalled the conversation early in the play, when Grif first noticed the audience. Questioning their motivation for attending, Isa replied simply, “they like to watch.”
The line stuck deep, cutting towards more disturbing questions. What, exactly, were we watching? thought Gwen. And what did we expect to see? Tiny, his water gun laid to the floor, inquired the same of the audience later. What did we want to see? Where, in another display of black suffering, did we expect some sort of satisfaction?
“I liked the cast,” Dania chimed in. “Really stellar work by all parties. Especially the kid, Tiny? Trent Davis. His indictment of the audience really landed.”
“The play certainly makes subtle drama out of its inter-generational conflicts,” Eleanor observed. “There’s despair in how Tiny is the first one willing to truly call out the audience for their passivity. Clearly, all four of the characters are rightly incensed by the hundreds of eyes focused on them. But the weight of the eyes is so heavy on Isa, Grif, and Daz –– so omnipresent as to become ingrained.”
“Do you think Tiny has had The Talk yet?” asked Dania. “How old is he supposed to be?”
“Too young, that’s all I know.”
“Too young for what? When would he be old enough?”
Clark, as director, had achieved a salient metatheatrical mirroring, Gwen noted. The way the play leveraged comfort and discomfort, of the characters and audience, was nothing short of masterful. The production’s deliberate, weighted spaces in the action allowed the characters a fleeting shield from discomfort –– until the requirement to say something, or take action, dropped them back into the unreality of their posthumous waiting game. It was an experience not a bit concerned with “satisfying” the observant audience, but rather with finding an ersatz comfort for the story’s characters under that ever-present gaze.
How can you be your authentic self when everyone is watching? asked Gwen. If you’re not performing, what are they waiting to see you do?
“That ramped wall, I swear,” Eleanor marveled. “What a perfect method of communicating entrapment. And the physical storytelling of watching the body flail and fall down the slope?”
“Even when they’re not trying to escape, it’s an obstacle,” Dania pointed out. “Isa attempting to climb the wall to get a better vantage point over the audience, but being unable to. He literally cannot get the upper hand.”
“The whole orientation of the space was…well, disorienting,” said Eleanor, referring to the deep-V thrust of the seats around the small, raised stage. “Even beyond the moments when the house lights rose, you’re never fully in the dark. You have to recognize the audience, rather than tune out everything besides the stage. I could tell some of the older patrons were thrown by it.”
“I noticed that too,” Dania said, brow furrowing. “I wonder if Timeline is the right company for the play,” she wondered aloud. “I worry that something this unapologetic might be falling on more deaf ears in an audience that––”
“I disagree,” countered Eleanor. “I think this is exactly the audience you want Kill Move Paradise staged with. The sort that wouldn’t seek out this type of experimental work is precisely the sort who needs most desperately to see it.”
“But will they understand it?” Dana asked. “If it provides no point of entry for people who don’t get the concept?”
“The concept of watching black bodies experience pain from a one-way mirror?” asked Eleanor. “Oh, they get the concept.”
Gwen had remained silent, letting Eleanor and Dania drive the discussion. But she jumped on the point, before they moved on.
“The show manages this extraordinarily fine balance,” she cut in, “of demanding the audience’s attention without allowing them to drift into voyeurism. Watch the opening, as Isa scans the entire crowd. That deliberate eye contact. That bubbling fury over being constantly watched. And yet, looking away is no longer an option. That‘s the discomfort of the characters, being turned back onto the audience.”
“Precisely,” Eleanor said. “Wow, you took all that time to come up with that one sentence?”
“I was weighing a lot of thoughts on the production,” admitted Gwen. “Whether it was worth my responding. In the end, though, I’d argue that there is worth in anyone’s take of what they observed –– provided that take is an analysis, rather than a regurgitation. The story is so fundamentally about the weight of being observed, and how to co-opt it.”
“See, that’s why I thought it was so interesting that Tiny was the one to actively confront the audience over their gaze, eventually,” Eleanor replied. “The play pulls a rug out from under us. After an hour of holding the audience in rapt discomfort, it finally throws up its hands and says, ‘fine, have it your way, here’s what you came for.’ And the resulting burlesque is the most discomforting element of the show.”
“Because we see the toll it takes on them!” Gwen added. “The way the gaze grinds you down when you acquiesce to it. The audience instinctively rejects the idea of enjoying it –– it forces a re-evaluation of your previous passivity.”
“Well, perhaps it does for you,” Dania mentioned. “I still wonder whether that discomfort is only felt by people who are already engaging with the play’s abstract structure. For as terrifying as the burlesque was for you, I heard clapping from the back rows.”
“There will always be passive observers that can’t be turned active,” Eleanor commented. “It’s the culture. It’s the double-edge sword of the script: a story about the harm of passive observation, which will inevitably be perceived passively by someone. But thankfully, if the artists do their work effectively, not as many will going forward.”
“Such is all great art,” Gwen groaned. “Perhaps that’s what will make the story timeless.”
“Let’s hope not,” Eleanor said, opening her program. “Ijames says in the Context notes that he hopes the play eventually becomes obsolete. Otherwise, that list of names is just going to grow and grow.”
Gwen considered the moment. From a printer spilled a list of unarmed black men, killed by police. The list was read in full during the play –– name following name in rhythm, accompanied by the ritual movements of the performers, running as long as it took. It was a cry to remember, the Millerian notion that “attention must be paid” converted to an instrument of protest. The play had premiered in 2017. The list had gotten longer. It would get longer still before the play grew obsolete.
The chant of the names was itself a sort of erasure –– the distillation of a human, a vessel of flesh and bone with the love of life poured into him, down to a string of syllables on paper. For some audiences, all they would witness would be the syllables. But perhaps, if Kill Move Paradise‘s incendiary leveraging of audience comfort achieved its ends, people would start to hear the life behind the syllables, too.
The play had no fourth wall. Perhaps, it seemed to whisper, life shouldn’t have one, either.
Image Credit: (l to r) Kai A. Ealy, Cage Sebastian Pierre, Trent Davis, Charles Andrew Gardner / Photo: Lara Goetsch