Interview with Kill Move Paradise playwright, James Ijames

We asked HotHouse actor Lindsay Smiling to interview playwright James Ijames about Kill Move Paradise and being an artist in Philadelphia. Lindsay Smiling plays Isa in the Wilma Production of Kill Move Paradise and also acted in James Ijames’ play Moon Man Walk, which was produced by Orbiter 3 in 2015.

Lindsay Smiling: I remember meeting you when you first arrived in Philadelphia as you were about to start grad school at Temple University. Since then, you’ve made a huge impact on the Philadelphia theater community. What is it about Philadelphia that has resonated so much with you as a performer, director and playwright to make it your home?

James Ijames: I think when I finished grad school at Temple and started working in Philly, the city felt like this tremendous space of potential. Initially I wanted to stay here for a couple of years and then move on. But the city, the people have a way of making you grow roots. I started to find my artistic homes here at the Arden and the Wilma. I started to spread my wings and try other areas with the theater. I started directing, putting my writing out there and it was all embraced. I come from a pretty dope family but I’m far away from them. Philly offered me family. Early on with folks like Kimmika Williams Witherspoon and Ozzie Jones, people like Amy Dugas Brown and Matt Pfeiffer. Some of the closest friendships of my life with Justin Jain, Aime Kelly and Akeem Davis. I feel like when you have a family they become your audience. The people you make art for. I found that here and it has made my career and my life more full.

You recently wrote that “the Wilma has had a tremendous impact on my work as a playwright” and that your first full length play was written in the dressing room while you were in the Wilma’s production of Angels in America. How do you think your relationship with the Wilma has influenced your writing?

Yeah I wrote …Miz Martha! [The Most Spectacularly LamentableTrial of Miz Martha Washington, which had readings at PlayPenn and the Wilma, and was produced by Flashpoint Theatre]  You know. I think it has something to do with scale and practice. Everything I’ve ever seen at the Wilma whether I loved it or not has always felt both wild and precise. These sort of became my guiding principles as a writer. Be wild and precise. I think this was true long before Angels in America. There have been a lot of Wilma productions that come to mind when I’m writing. Scorched, The Clean House, In the Next Room, Jesus Hopped the A Train, Leaving, and many more. That production of Angels in America in particular was inspiring because Blanka created a whole world really out of blank white emptiness. That set! It was like the Wild West and it forced everyone in the cast to engage in these large performances. When I sit down to write I’m aiming for that level of scale. Huge. But I’m also tethered to the ground by the desire for the world I write to feel precise and to make sense. It doesn’t always have to make sense to everybody but the hope as I work is that it will connect and move people.

You’re very familiar with the Wilma HotHouse, and have been commissioned to write a play for us. How do you think the Wilma’s process do think will elevate Kill Move Paradise?

So the play is incredibly physically demanding. The characters are caught in a space that I’ve come to think of as like the bardo [in Tibetan Buddhism, a transitional or liminal space between death and rebirth]. This goes back to what I was saying about wild and precise. The HotHouse practice meets this kind of writing really beautifully because the play is open. Right? I think the play is more a gesture than an instruction manual. The HotHouse approach is playful and exploratory and then it irises down to something quite precise and I believe Kill Move Paradise will benefit from this.

One of the play’s epigraphs is a quote from Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude: “At what age is a black boy when he learns he’s scary?” The idea that my skin alone is something society fears certainly resonates with me as I’m sure it does with many people of color. Can you talk about how you are challenging the audience to confront this fear in Kill Move Paradise?

Woof. Okay. So this is going to be a very long answer so buckle up.

You remember that Samuel Jackson movie A Time To Kill. I think Sandra Bullock was it in it. Anyway at the center of the movie a young black girl is brutally beaten and raped by a group of Confederate flag wearing white men. They get acquitted. Sam Jackson shoots them in the lobby of the courthouse. The rest of the movie is about Sam Jackson’s trial. His lawyer is the “Alright alright alright” guy that does those car commercials. Skip to the end of the movie Mr. Alright Alright Alright is doing his closing argument. He describes in graphic detail what this young girl has gone through. And then at the end he says to the jurors. “Now…Imagine she’s white.”

Now. Even as a kid I was like “huh?” why is that necessary for compassion or empathy? Are only white people offered this piece of human kindness?

Fast forward to the beginning of the 21st century and black people are being killed left and right by vigilantes, by law enforcement who say things like “I was scared for my life” when talking about teenage boys. And that thought kept running through my mind, “Now…Imagine she’s white.”

Fast forward to me sitting down to write Kill Move Paradise and trying to create a space in which the humanity of the people on stage is undeniable. These characters embody all the ways in which we try to be human. They are jealous, they are kind, they maternal and paternal, they are pushed physically to the edge of something and then fall. You can’t deny their humanity. And they are all black. So the audience has to see them as they are. Imagining the white version of them is not an option.

At one point in Kill Move Paradise a list of names is read of Black men and women who were untimely killed. As we are coming up on beginning rehearsals, how has your relationship to this script changed, knowing there are many more names that could be added to that list?

I always say that I hope this play becomes obsolete one day. That’s like a crazy thing for a playwright to say. But I hope one day that people will say we don’t need to do this play anymore because we are different. We are better. And every time I think we have reached a point where maybe this play is obsolete. It’s suddenly not. And the violence with which that reality comes to me never ceases to take my breath. Even now as I write this I’m thinking about Nia Wilson. And I’m also anxious because I know, by the time this play opens and someone is sitting comfortably in those fabulous seats, perhaps sipping a glass of wine, that list will have grown. I’m anxious because by the time this play closes that list will have grown. I don’t say this to be cynical. I don’t say this to be pessimistic. I say it because, unless we really begin to look at why this is happening. Structurally, psychically. We will repeat it. I think it’s Mark Twain who said that history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes. A repeat you know how to deal with cause you’ve seen it before. But rhyming just different enough to fool you into thinking it’s something new.