In “Is God Is,” when twin sisters Racine and Anaia hear from their mother for the first time in 18 years, it is to urge them to find and kill their father – as revenge for the fire he set that scarred all three of them. “Make your daddy dead, dead. And everything around him you can destroy, too.” The sisters obey, traveling cross-country and going on a killing spree.
That’s more or less the plot, but it doesn’t explain what’s beneath the carnage. This play by Aleshea Harris, running at the newly renovated Soho Rep through March 31 in a well-acted world premiere production, is an intriguing if sometimes disconcerting mix of genres and allusions and tones that marks a noteworthy Off-Broadway debut of a playwright we’ll be hearing from.
We’ve already heard from her. Before it was produced anywhere, “Is God Is” won the 2016 Relentless Award, the $45,000 prize created by the American Playwriting Foundation in honor of Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Harris explains her play as an “epic” that “takes its cues from the ancient, the modern, the tragic, the Spaghetti Western, hip-hop and Afropunk.”
If the playwright draws from Sergio Leone – and Quentin Tarantino and Martin McDonagh – what’s most original about “Is God Is” is her transposing of the pop revenge genre to an African-American context. All eight members of the cast are black, the characters are from the “Dirty South” and speak in African-American vernacular (as reflected in the title.) There are also several apparent nods to the work of reigning young black playwrights. The characters describe themselves in the third person, as if reading the stage directions aloud, much as the characters do in “The Brother/Sister Plays” by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Both scenic designer Adam Rigg’s diorama-like set, and the comic antics especially of the drunken lawyer , subtly invoke the sort of post-modern take on 19th century theater and minstrelsy that Branden Jacobs-Jenkins played around with in An Octoroon and Neighbors.
Director Taibi Magar has assembled a first rate cast. Alfie Fuller as Anaia, her face covered in scars, and Dame-Jasmine Hughes as Racine more or less carry the show, sometimes funny sometimes fierce, but each of the performers is memorable; the play is written to showcase each character. The inventive design team tries to make the most of the small stage, but except for a coup de theatre at the finale, it’s hard to avoid thinking of the sliver of a stage and rectangular window playing area as more appropriate for puppets. The violence as a result comes off as more playful than is surely intended
Still, “Is God Is” doesn’t allow the alert audience member to bask undisturbed in the sadistic pleasures of revenge. The playwright weaves in occasional sly social and moral commentary. Racine and Anaia start calling their mother God, and say “we are on a mission from God.” (a line familiar to fans of the Blues Brothers movies.) When one of the people they encounter calls their mother “ghetto trashy,” Racine feels fully justified in offing her: “errbody know talkin shit about God will get you kilt. “
None of the characters are all evil. If none are all good, it seems clear they don’t deserve the death penalty. Racine and Anaia at first recoil at their mission; Anaia remains far more troubled and ambivalent than Racine, but finally both take it to uncomfortable extremes. Before they confront their father, they stumble upon his new family – his second wife, Angie, who is planning to escape from his clutches, and 16-year-old twin sons, who are introduced to us as comic figures — Scotch, who fancies himself a great rap writer (but isn’t), and Riley, a homebody homosexual who likes to make arugula salads.
When Anaia finally meets The Man (as the father is called), she says incredulously: “You were mad ‘cause she didn’t want you to touch her so you set her on fire?”
“It’s more nuanced than that, but yes,” the Man answers. This struck me as a funny line coming from a murderous psychopath.
It required a little digging, a little after-performance contemplation, but, for all its crazed violence, “Is God Is” is more nuanced than it first appears.
Is God Is
by Aleshea Harris
Directed by Taibi Magar
Scenic Design: Adam Rigg
Costume Design: Montana Levi Blanco
Lighting Design: Matthew Richards
Sound Design: Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste
Cast: Teagle F. Bougere (Man), Anthony Cason (Riley), Nehassaiu deGannes (Angie), Jessica Frances Dukes (She), Caleb Eberhardt (Scotch), Alfie Fuller (Anaia), Michael Genet (Chuck Hall), and Dame-Jasmine Hughes (Racine)
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $50 to $150. Rush: $30 general or $20 student. 99 cents on February 25, March 4, and March 11
“Is God Is” is scheduled to run through March 31, 2018