By Rob Cline
IOWA CITY — Right at the top of “Killadelphia: Mixtape of a City,” Sean Christopher Lewis does an odd thing. He comes out on stage, makes a little joke about the audience spending its downtime at a “hardcore prison drama,” and then explains that he still has a little setting up to do before the show starts.
I was a bit taken aback, but most audience members at the Sunday (3/7) afternoon performance at Riverside Theatre took it in stride, returning to their preshow conversations until Lewis stepped to the middle of stage, said, “This is always the awkward part,” and jumped into the one-man performance.
Lewis, a 2007 graduate of the Iowa Playwrights Workshop who moved back to Iowa City a few months ago, commands attention from that moment, so I couldn’t immediately ponder the opening device. Instead, I was swept up in Lewis’ complex story of Philadelphia, a city beset by violence.
The playwright and actor is at the center of his story. The play is built from his interviews with prison lifers and with family members of victims. It is about how those interactions made him feel, about how they changed or reinforced his thinking, about how the whole situation in Philadelphia is frustrating not only to him, but to an entire city of people who would like to see substantive, lasting change.
In a certain sense, the play is also about the process of creating the play. Throughout the hourlong work, Lewis often mentions previous performances of the play (including a fraught performance for inmates at the facility where the project began), previous talkbacks with audiences and interactions that changed the play while he was developing it.
This is important, because it lends “Killedelphia” a questioning, searching tone. Lewis is never dogmatic. Rather, he’s struggling to make sense of a terrible situation that makes very little sense. He wants the audience to go on the journey with him.
Inviting the audience along is what those opening moments are all about. By knocking down the fourth wall before the show officially begins, Lewis avoids setting himself up as a fellow with all the answers — or with any of the answers. Instead, he encourages the audience to wrestle with the same issues that he has wrestled with while creating the work. The disarming device is ultimately quite effective.
Lewis is also an excellent performer, dropping in and out of characters from widely disparate backgrounds and situations without ever descending into caricature. Hans Hinrichsen’s lighting design and Dave Wallingford’s sound design aid Lewis in his efforts to create different spaces, different moods, and differently weighted moments. Working with director Matt Slaybaugh, Lewis and his artistic partners have created a thought-provoking way to spend some downtime.
What: “Killadelphia: Mixtape of a City”
Where: Riverside Theatre, 213 N. Gilbert St., Iowa City
When: Through 14; 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; post-show discussions follow every performance
Tickets: $12 to $26 through the Riverside Theatre Box Office, (319) 338-7672 or www.riversidetheatre.org $12 student rush 20 minutes before each show at the door
Advisory: Contains adult language