Stage Door Review
Is God Is
Friday, February 10, 2023
by Aleshea Harris, directed by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu
Obsidian Theatre Company, Necessary Angel Theatre Company & Canadian Stage, Berkeley Street Theatre, Toronto
May 11-22, 2022;
• National Arts Centre, Ottawa
February 9-18, 2023
Racine: “Ain’t nobody innocent”
Three theatre companies have come together to bring Toronto the Canadian premiere of Aleshea Harris’s incendiary play Is God Is, winner of the 2018 Obie Award for Best Playwriting. Harris’s play is audacious in that she aims at reviving a theatre genre that died out at the in 1625, namely the Jacobean revenge tragedy. In some ways the recurrence to this genre should be no surprise since the questions and anxieties of the present era are so similar to those of the Jacobean period. Under the rigorous, insightful direction of Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, the cast and creative team conjure up a terrifying contemporary Black vision of a world that has lost its moral compass.
The action begins when we meet twin sisters, 21 years old, who have both been badly burned in a fire. Racine (Oyin Oladejo) has scars on her arms and back. Anaia (Vanessa Sears) has scars on her face and neck and has to wear a wig. ( While the word “racine” means “root” in French, as a name in Africa and the Caribbean it means “a wise girl”; Anaia means “God has answered”.) At their apartment somewhere in the US northeast they receive a letter from their mother who they thought was dead. They had heard nothing from her for 18 years and had been told she had died in the fire. Now she wants the twins to visit her urgently at the nursing home because she’s dying. The address of the nursing home is “Oscarville, MS/AL/FL/TX/TN/AR/KY, Dirty South”, a detail that epitomizes Harris’s use of humour and abstraction in telling her tale.
On their arrival at the home, they see their mother known only as She (Alison Sealy-Smith). The twins call her God because she created them, a name which, more than the address, adds a metaphysical layer to the story. She tells the twins what really happened in the fire. The twin’s father, known only as Man, deliberately set She on fire and her whole body is scarred from the neck down making her look, as She says like an “alligator”. Racine and Anaia received their injuries in trying to save She from burning.
Now that She is dying she has one request of her daughters, “Make your daddy dead” with the addendum, “And everything around him you can destroy, too”. And She wants them to bring back trophies of those they kill.
Even Racine, the aggressive twin, is aghast at this and asks, quite reasonably, “Don’t you think that since you dyin you might wanna just forgive and forget? Die in a peaceful state?” But no, She wants revenge and soon, before she dies. When she shows them her body, the two instantly agree and set out on their journey. A burn expert I know praised designer Ming Wong’s depiction of She’s scarred body as the most creative rendering of what extensive burns look like that he’s ever seen on stage.
Based on information from She, the twins travel to California and visit Man’s lawyer Craig (Matthew G. Brown), who got Man off for the attempted murder of She and, for unknown reasons, is in the process of committing suicide with a prescription drug overdose. Before he dies the twins find out where Man lives and confirms what She told them that he has a wife (Sabryn Rock), adding that Man also has twin 16-year-old sons (Savion Roach and Micah Woods).
To tell any more of the story would spoil the suspense. Although a person can guess that once Racine fashions her weapon of choice, a slungshot (not “slingshot”) made from putting a rock inside a knee-high sock and using it like a flail, that that weapon will not go unused. There is, indeed, lots of onstage violence, stylized and, with one exception, completely bloodless even though She said the she hoped for “lots of blood”.
In the introduction to Is God Is, Harris says, “This epic takes its cues from the ancient, the modern, the tragic, the Spaghetti Western, hip-hop and Afropunk”. She’s request of two people to kill a father whose whereabouts are unknown vaguely echoes the plot of Sam Peckinpah’s film Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974). But, if we look for a precedent in theatre, the amount of onstage violence and the high body count at the end is matched only by the revenge tragedies of the Jacobean period.
In particular, Harris’s use of allegory and symbolism relates Is God Is most closely to a play like The Revenger’s Tragedy (1606) by Thomas Middleton (so far never staged by the Stratford Festival) whose main character is named Vindice (or “revenger”). Vindice and his brother set out to murder all those at an unnamed Italian court whom Vindice holds responsible for the death of his fiancée. Vindice’s ultimate target is a man known only as the Duke and the Duke had two sons, the legitimate Lussurioso and the illegitimate Spurio, before he married a woman known only as the Duchess.
While Is God Is does not have as high a body count as in Middleton, it does have the same mixture of humour and horror. Racine, the merciless one, and Anaia, the merciful one, often disagree about killing a person until that person says something insulting or does something aggressive to set Racine off. In both plays there is the notion that personal revenge is necessary because there is no divine justice. In Middleton when Vindice hears Lussurioso brag of his crimes, he calls to heaven. “Is there no thunder left?” and “Has not heaven an ear? Is all the lightning wasted?” i.e. to strike down the wicked.
Similarly in Is God Is, Racine and Anaia do not assume there is any higher authority. Earthly justice, as in Middleton, is ineffective and is embodied in Harris by the corrupt, suicidal lawyer. The fact that the twins refer to their own mother as God signals that they two are on a distinctly earthly mission, although Harris allows us to view the action as a parable of what happens when devout acolytes are sent out by a God of vengeance.
The result, as in Middleton and other Jacobean revenge tragedies is that vengeance may be achieved, but the question is, “At what cost?” Racine is aware of the irony of her deadly quest when she notes that both She and Man are focussed only on murder: “We come from a man who tried to kill our mama and a mama who wants to kill that man. Iss in the blood”. Racine wants to believe that she and Anaia have inherited a proclivity to kill. Anaia disagrees and tells Racine that some of the people they will meet are innocent, to which Racine declares, “Ain’t nobody innocent”, a statement which has to include both of them. On a theological level, Harris presents us with a fallen world with only a dying human God and no hope of redemption.
By the end the dying She is satisfied but Anaia takes a curious action that suggests her rage against God. While She says things are finally quiet for herself, Anaia says, “Funny, I still hear noise” implying that the horror she has been asked to experience, a young woman who had previously grown satisfied with her life, will not end.
Director Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu has brought Harris’s bleak vision to life by drawing terrific performances from nearly the entire cast. As Racine Oyin Oladejo gives she gives her best-ever performance and displays a fierceness we previously would not have expected from her. While we known that Racine is the tougher, more aggressive twin, Oladejo still surprises us with the relish with which Racine takes up the role of killer.
As Anaia, Vanessa Sears, unrecognizable in a half-mask and wig, plays the role of Racine’s conscience. Oladejo and Sears play the two as if one person had been split into two with Racine the doer and Anaia the thinker. Sears takes Anaia on a fascinating journey from meekness and doubting to rage and fury, a journey that suggests that even the mildest person has a beast within that can be unleashed. By the end Harris shows, as do earlier revenge tragedians, that the revengers ultimately see the pointlessness of their actions.
Alison Sealy-Smith gives a tremendous performance as She. Sealy-Smith completely overturns our expectations of a feeble senior in a nursing home by the growing intensity of her long tale of the night she was burned climaxing in a terrifying cry for vengeance.
Matthew G. Brown’s performance as the corrupt lawyer Chuck serves as a comic contrast to Sealy-Smith as She. Just as She grows stronger as fury grows within her, Brown’s lawyer grows drunker, more drug-addled and feebler as he speaks.
As Angie, Sabryn Rock also provides some comic relief from the twins’ grim quest. Rock presents Angie as a parody of a suburban housewife – fed up with doing chores and receiving no help from her useless sons and inattentive husband. When she meets the twins it’s quite clear that she feels no bond of Blackness. Instead, her consciousness of being in a much higher class than this “ghetto trash” kicks in.
Savion Roach and Micah Woods also have comic but creepy roles to play as Angie’s do-nothing twin sons Scotch and Riley. They parallel Racine and Anaia as the tough one and the shy one, so that in meeting them it feels as though the female twins have met lesser, unmotivated versions of themselves. Roach quickly lets us see the unpleasantness that seeps under Scotch’s façade as a poet, while Woods’s scene of unbridled hysteria is truly disturbing.
The one disappointment is Tyrone Benskin as Man. On the one hand it is logical that the person who is the greatest embodiment of evil in the play should appear and act completely ordinary. On the other hand, one wishes that Benskin could at least intimate an underlying intensity that Man’s seeming ordinariness could vanish at any moment.
Otu is aware that Harris uses Brechtian alienation effects deliberately to distance the audience from the action. Otu adds projecting on the set the titles Harris has given each of the fifteen scenes and stylizing the action so that there is no blood when in reality the stage would be awash with it. Harris, like Roland Schimmelpfennig in a play like Winter Solstice (2015), has the characters also narrate their own actions, and Otu has had the actors distinguish their narrator’s voice from their character’s voice.
Otu has also created the production in close consultation with the rest of the creative team. Ken Mackenzie has designed a clever set where two metal gates create a fourth wall between the stage and the audience as if those on stage were imprisoned in a nightmare or a cycle of violence from which they cannot escape.
Lighting designer Raha Javanfar, video designer Laura Warren and sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne closely collaborate to make the atmosphere of the play as ominous as possible. All three conspire to make any mention of fire in the past come all too vividly to life in the present.
While Harris may be inspired by the revenge tragedy, she has altered the genre in a significant way. All the revengers in British drama are European males while Harris’s heroes are young African-American women who are not even sure they can fulfil the demand She places on them. Harris thus makes us see these young women, who first appeared as victims, in an an entirely new light as explorers on a dangerous quest.
Like the revenge tragedies of old, Harris’s play does raise innumerable questions. If the world on stage is meant to reflect the real world, no matter in how hyperbolic a manner, the play asks why Black people see themselves outside of the traditional justice system. The play asks why Black youth are already scarred as children by what they witness around them. It also asks, what sort of justice there is for them if even revenge is futile. Like the traditional revenge tragedy, Harris’s powerful evocation of a horrifying world on stage asks the audience to re-view the world they live in and to seek real world solutions.
Photo: Vanessa Sears as Anaia and Oyin Oladejo as Racine; Oyin Oladejo as Racine; Vanessa Sears as Anaia and Oyin Oladejo as Racine. © 2022 Elijah Nichols.
For tickets visit www.canadianstage.com or nac-cna.ca.