By ANNE SIEGEL
MILWAUKEE, WI. – Race-based violence – especially against young Black men – is not unknown in this Midwest city, although most of the conflicts seen on the local TV news seem confined to certain parts of the inner city.
When George Floyd died in 2020, Milwaukee was at the forefront of social justice marches held around the city all summer. For some of us, the horrendous event was all too close to home. This reviewer’s sister and her family reside in a home just two blocks from where George Floyd lived in St. Louis Park, a Minneapolis suburb.
The death of George Floyd had a real impact on this city, as it did in towns across America. In Milwaukee, Floyd’s death sparked a movement to create a Black Theater Festival. Now an annual event, it attracts Black playwrights, artists, actors, dancers, directors and technical talent to display their contribution to the arts. Numerous other changes also have occurred in the wake of this social justice movement. Milwaukee now has a Black mayor, for instance.
And leave it to Next Act Theatre to open their fall season with a thought-provoking play that examines this issue. The company, which is celebrating its 33rd season, certainly hasn’t settled into complacency over the years. This production proves it. The Next Act play opened on September 22 and continues through October 16.
The show is Kill Move Paradise by playwright James Ijames, who won a 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for another one of his shows, Fat Ham.
Next Act’s intense drama involves four Black men who suddenly find themselves in strange circumstances. It takes a while for them to get their bearings, just as the audience is also trying to figure out their circumstances. A tall, silver-colored wall bends at the bottom, almost looking like a skateboard ramp (set design by Michael Van Dresser and Mitch Schmidt). On each side of the wall are shelves filled with seemingly discarded items from someone’s past: a wheelbarrow, a saxophone, a vintage African war shield, a dartboard and a football.
The first to arrive is Isa (Marcus Causey). His entrance is truly dramatic: he dangles from the top of the wall by one hand. Eventually, Isa lets go and slides onto the stage. He’s wearing a safari-colored button-down shirt and coordinating drawstring pants (costumes by Trinae Williams-Henning). As one might expect, Isa moves warily in his new surroundings. In slow, choreographed movements, he takes it all in.
This includes the audience. Breaking the fourth wall, Isa wonders aloud about the people who are just sitting there, watching him. For a long, silent moment, Isa watches the audience. He is soon joined by another man, Grif (Ibraheem Farmer), and then Daz (Dimonte Henning). Daz announces that his name is a shortened version of his nickname, Dazzle.
As the three men exchange banter, a teletype machine occasionally turns itself on and “spits out” a list of names. We soon learn that the names are those of young Black men who have just died. Isa notes that the list continues to grow every day.
Eventually, Isa is encouraged to read some names from the list. They include Dontre Hamilton, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, and dozens of other names that are unfamiliar to this reviewer. Ultimately, the three men realize their own names must be on the list, too. After taking in this shocking revelation, each man processes it in his own way. Isa is philosophical, Grif remains (temporarily) in disbelief, and Daz grows angry. Very angry. He gets so angry that at one point he surges directly at the audience, only to be restrained by Isa and Grif.
The three men spend an inordinate amount of time staring directly at the audience, which is bound to make some viewers feel uncomfortable. Some of the looks are humorous, some curious, and some menacing. To lighten the moment, the men start to make pointed comments about individual audience members. This is very funny.
At other times, it seems the actors are trying to encourage some interaction from the audience. “Am I scary?” one hears each of them say. In the case of Isa and Grif, who can manage their emotions, probably not. But that’s not the case with Daz. Under Marti Gobel’s firm direction, Daz seems like a loose cannon who’s ready to swing a blow or erupt in laughter. One can never guess which.
Dimonte Henning probably delivers the finest performance of his career while processing Daz’s raw emotions. Daz is livid at being plopped in this “holding pen” on the way to – what? The play’s title suggests paradise, but the ending doesn’t make this clear at all. Occasionally, Daz uses rough language to describe his own life and his feelings about the other men.
A late arrival to the scene is a teenager named Tiny (Joseph Brown, Jr.). At first, the three men try to protect Tiny from realizing their predicament. Tiny makes this more difficult, pleading to go home to his mother. Soon, Tiny mimics the men’s earlier failed attempts at scaling the wall.
The older men eventually settle on calling Tiny “Little Man.” In another funny scene, they attempt to play a cops and robbers-type game with Tiny, in which the men attempt to impersonate “aliens” while Tiny shoots at them with a plastic toy gun.
Kill Move Paradise attempts to show the truth about Black life in America. There’s a strong physicality in this play, which Gobel, the director, emphasizes at every opportunity. But there’s also a sense of poetry, too. Freedom Gobel choreographs some sequences so that movement lends an additional way to tell the story. The four actors do an excellent job of creating a genuine rapport that helps to bind the production together.
The play’s emotional impact is enhanced by the efforts of sound designer Josh Schmidt and composer and sound designer Kemet Gobel. The play’s sometimes dark and gloomy appearance is reinforced by myriad strange noises that emanate throughout. Lighting design is by Maaz Ahmed.
The play runs 90 minutes, with no intermission to break the dramatic effect. The result is powerful – perhaps too powerful for some subscribers (as with most theaters, the majority of subscribers are older and white). But others will feel a sense relief at seeing a vision of their reality onstage.
Kill Move Paradise plays through October 16 at the Next Act Theatre in Milwaukee’s Third Ward. Tickets range from $30-35, although some performances are pay-what-you-can. For tickets and more information, go to nextact.org, or contact the box office at 414-278-0765. Masks are not required but strongly encouraged inside the theater.