by Josh Gross
Killadelphia: Mixtape for a City, the one-man show currently being staged at The Linen Building by Welsh/Garcia Productions, is a curious piece of theater. Its subject matter—various takes on the sky-high murder rate in Philly—is by turns unsettling, infuriating, compelling and cliche. The numerous questions it poses about the situation are imposed upon the play by the audience more than than they are presented in the performance. There are no answers.
The play follows writer and performer Sean Christopher Lewis as he recounts headlines from the height of the murder boom and his experiences volunteering inside a prison. He takes on the characters of men doing life for murder and other players in the larger scheme, all of it set to a hip-hop soundtrack. The loose plot is the somewhat self-indulgent story of writing the play itself, as his prison experiences were intended as research. The meta nature of the arc straddles the line between ultra-modern and bizarrely narcissistic, a duality intensified by the text's acknowledgement from the prison warden character that Lewis is not the first to go down this path. Other playwrights have visited his prison for the same reasons. The implication is "other well-meaning middle-class white people."
The problem that creates in a narrative sense is a lack of drama or tension. Nothing is on the line other than whether or not Lewis completes the play. It has less interest in offering substantive analysis of the issues at hand than it does connecting fractured snapshots into an abstract collage of the city. Which is odd, because Lewis had a firm grasp on the issue during the talkback session and offered compelling answers and experiences that didn't make the cut for the play. Those experiences were more than just missed dramatic opportunities, they were answers to the questions the audience was left with after witnessing such vivid content.
What sells Killadelphia is the performance. Lewis performs the piece with the percussive intensity of an emcee battle, bouncing around the stage and moving easily from one terrifyingly intense character depiction to the next with a practiced ease. The nuances of his portrayal of the prisoners he tutors are spot-on and the distinction he brings to each of the many characters is deadly precise. The performances are strong enough that it's kept the show touring for the last two years.
It's all too common that by the time a play reaches an audience, its depictions are of situations that may remain compelling, but are no longer relevant. Killadelphia's run at The Linen Building is the rare opportunity to go the other way and see a play whose draw is based on its urgency. It is the song of the streets. Or the mixtape.
The play runs through Oct. 21 and costs $10. $7 for students.