When Sylville Smith was shot and killed by a police officer three blocks from my home in 2016, the community quickly gathered on the scene of the shooting. Young and old alike were there, dealing with the pain of another Black person killed by the police.
Reporters came to the Sherman Park neighborhood after multiple fires were set and violent confrontations between young people and the police broke out. These reporters asked questions but rarely asked the questions that were most pertinent to the young Black boys and men of America. Instead of finally listening to the young men and boys of the Black community, their voices were silenced, much as they always are in America.
KILL MOVE PARADISE gives room for those voices to be heard. However, the three men and one teenager in the play are only able to articulate to America how they see the world after they are killed. They question the audience, who are symbolic of the nation they once lived in. As they inquire about where they are – is it heaven, is it hell, are they still alive? – they realize it doesn’t really matter for them.
One of the central themes of the play is a never-ending list of the names of other Blacks killed by the police. I had kept a list myself. As I went out into the community after Sylville Smith was shot, I wanted to hear the voices of the young men and teenage boys who were mourning one of their own. They often said it could have just as easily been them that was killed. Their voices were full of grief and sadness but also anger. They were tired and traumatized and had no outlet that would satisfy their emotional needs at that moment.
The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery in 2020 led to what many called a racial reckoning in America. The characters in KILL MOVE PARADISE challenge the audience members in much the same way. They ask the audience why they are seen as scary. What did they do to become “boogiemen”? The reality is that they did nothing, much like members of the list of Blacks killed by police and socalled vigilantes. They attempt to tell the story of how random acts, which would never cause alarm if committed by a White person, often lead to the death of unarmed Blacks.
The men are shocked when they see a teenager drop into the strange space they occupy. He teaches them lessons about his life. They eventually begin to learn that being who they are offers no guarantees of a long, loving and peaceful existence. America has told them to see themselves through a very specific racial lens. They realize how often America sends a message into the world that makes Black people the enemy instead of the friend. Not just the enemy of the world, but enemies of each other.
The young men try to be supportive of each other. This is something they see as the opposite of the messaging America sends them regularly. As they get to know more about their current circumstances, they reminisce on their lived experiences and the way life feels like a game. A game that is rigged and guarantees they will lose.
The game plays out in different ways for each character, but the ending of the game is the same. They did nothing wrong other than being born into a segment of American society that is devalued. Their lives and that of their friends and families are exposed to the audience, to America, in a way that makes the audience question what they think they know about the experiences of Black men and boys. The conversations among the three men and the teenage boy spiral around from talking to each other, to asking the audience questions, to teaching the audience through song and dance.
The characters in KILL MOVE PARADISE try really hard to understand what the future holds for them and the long list of their peers on the outside, still living. What will be their futures? Will they join the list? Will their stories, like that of Sylville Smith, mean something in the long-term or simply be a story that dies in the abyss of American race relations? For those interested in knowing more about the voices of the unheard in America’s racial caste, KILL MOVE PARADISE opens up a way to explore those stories.
Reggie Jackson is a nationally heralded independent scholar and much sought-after speaker, researcher, writer, and consultant to the media on race relations. He helps institutions and individuals understand how our country’s racial hierarchy developed historically, its impact on our lives today, and how we can realize America’s promise for all its citizens. Reggie shares seldom-told stories and data about the experiences of African-Americans and other peoples of color past and present.
Tickets for KILL MOVE PARADISE are now on sale at https://nextact.org/shows/kill-move-paradise/?tickets. This production is offered live at 255 S. Water Street. Performances run September 22 – October 16, 2022.