nytheatre.com review by David Ian Lee
April 29, 2009
Killadelphia...or the City of Numbers is an epic piece of theatre, with dozens of characters, multiple locations, and dramatic material to rival the excoriating journey of any country's fortunes linked to a Greek king or Danish prince. With unflinching honesty, Sean Christopher Lewis's play explores the tragic underpinnings of inner-city violence, as well as the unexpected epilogues of lives cut short and verdicts rendered. Killadelphia offers a theatrical megaphone to voices oft not heard above the din of stereotype and assumption, including those of wardens, victims, survivors, children on the edge of the world yet in the center of the country, and the many, many inmates of Graterford Prison. What makes Killadelphia a must-see evening of theatre, however, is that Lewis—with ease and remarkable versatility—plays each of the characters himself, in a satisfying one-man symphony that clocks in at well under 90 minutes.
In the summer of 2008, Philadelphia experienced a spike in violent crime unmatched historically or geographically; known as "The City of Numbers," it was said that Philadelphia had "more bodies than days." Killadelphia serves as a theatrical snapshot of the city itself, offering not judgment but analysis by way of observation. Lewis's show journeys from burned-out slums—where the families of murder victims are taunted by their own neighbors not to "snitch"—to the airwaves of conservative talk radio, where pundits opine as to why the City of Brotherly Love seems filled with so many Cains and Abels. Killadelphia features trauma surgeons who graphically describe the injuries they've treated for repeat visitors to the ER (patients whose wounds, over time, inevitably escalate from beatings to knifings to gunshot wounds to the head), and local rappers who attempt to convey and cauterize through song their community's Job-like suffering.
And then there are the inmates of Graterford Prison. Serving out life sentences (and, in instances, multiple sentences; some handed down to felons when they were barely teenagers), they speak frankly about their crimes, their victims, and the day-to-day realities of a life lived in penitentiary, as well as the unique arts program that found inmates painting murals for the purpose of beautifying Philadelphia. This is not the grit-porn of Oz or the romance of The Shawshank Redemption: Killadelphia offers an unvarnished look at life inside of Graterford. Sometimes that look is threatening, but often it is surprisingly mundane, and in that mundaneness Lewis discovers a thrilling narrative of acceptance and regret.
Interwoven through the various narratives of Killadelphia is the tragic, true story of Beau Zabel, a 23-year-old teaching fellow who was murdered in June of 2008. Shot in the neck as he walked home from work, Zabel was apparently killed in a robbery attempt; his iPod was stolen, though his wallet was left unturned. Zabel's neighbors were shocked at his violent death, as they had always assumed their neighborhood to be safely removed from the uncivil carnage found elsewhere in the city.
Commissioned by the Mural Arts Project of Philadelphia and InterAct Theatre, Killadelphia is the result of multiple interviews conducted by Lewis. Appearing as a character in the work himself, Lewis describes meeting with the killers and the surviving family of murdered Philadelphians (his descriptive recreation of his first steps along the halls of Graterford Prison is a tense, unexpected highlight of the evening). This unique documentary technique is what allows Lewis and Killadelphia the particular intimacy and insights on display, and—in an instance of the reporter becoming the story, or of art imitating life imitating art—becomes an arresting element of the play.
Lewis and director Matt Slaybaugh have crafted an outstanding piece of theatre, brilliantly conceived to both educate and entertain. Directed by Slaybaugh with efficiency and briskness, Killadelphia is performed on a bare stage with minimal props; there are projected images and prerecorded songs, but Slaybaugh employs a stripped-down, no-frills approach that brilliantly places the focus on Lewis and his tour-de-force performance. Lewis is currently traveling the country, playing Killadelphia in major cities with crime rates that, while overshadowed by that of Philadelphia's Summer of 2008, are disturbingly on the rise. Lewis next investigative work will take him to a Detroit factory, soon to be shuttered; one wishes him all the success with that project that he has found with Killadelphia.